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Can This Bird Fly? Repositioning the Genesis of the Reformation on Martin Luther’s Early Polemic against Gabriel Biel’s Covenantal, Voluntarist Doctrine of Justification
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During this Easter season, we often sing the Elvina Hall hymn “Jesus Paid It All.” The refrain is:
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.
Jesus paid our debt through His substitutionary atonement on the cross and then overcame the penalty of sin through His resurrection. However, I’m afraid the fact that Jesus paid your debt and my debt is losing its wonder in today’s world.
We live in a time when debt is no longer something to be avoided or delivered from, but it is an accepted, even embraced, way of life. Numerous countries, including the U.S., run on debt-based economic models. The government’s debt is presently greater than $21 trillion—that’s a debt of $174,000 per tax payer. It is the largest debt for a single country in the world. Chasing the American Dream has resulted in student loan debt of $1.5 trillion and credit card debt approaching $1 trillion. One credit card company’s marketing promises to pay the card user cash back for using its credit card. Why doesn’t this company simply go bankrupt giving away cash? Because card users carry debt on the card.
Folks have forgotten the wisdom of “don’t spend what you don’t have.” Society has become desensitized to debt, justifies debt burdens, and feels entitled to debt forgiveness without consequence. To be sure, society is now conditioned to carry large debt burdens despite the long-term ramifications. Commercials and societal norms opine that you cannot go to college, buy a house, or get a car without loans. Even cell phone companies offer financing for the purchase of the latest and greatest phone.
With “living with debt” as the societal norm, do we really understand the debt that Jesus paid? Romans 3:23 is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and Romans 6:23 informs us that “the wages of sin is death.” You and I deserve death. We are not entitled to probation for good behavior or a “get out of jail free” card. Death—no breathing, no firing of brain neurons, no beating of the heart, and no life support technologies keeping us “alive.” Moreover, the consequence of carrying our sin debt is beyond the temporal trappings of this world; it is eternal—eternal separation from God. As sinners, we are an abomination to a holy God. We cannot approach Him after the fact to plead our case or play “let’s make a deal.”
There is no debt forgiveness with a holy God. The sin debt has to be paid, or else we suffer the consequences. However, our debt is so enormous that it leaves us bankrupt, and we cannot do anything about it. Isaiah 64:6 attests that “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.”
But the good news is that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to pay our sin debt. Jesus is the only man who could pay our sin debt. Scripture attests to what Jesus did for us:
Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
[Jesus] Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation….” (Revelation 5:9)
Jesus died for your sins and my sins on the cross. His blood was spilled as the atoning sacrifice to pay our sin debt. John 19:30 records the last words of Jesus on the cross: “Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”
The single Greek word translated “It is finished” is tetelestai. It is an accounting term meaning “paid in full.” Jesus was declaring that our debt owed to God for our sin was completely wiped away forever. No payment plan is required, no surprise balloon payments materialize at the end—the sin debt has been paid in full. This is perhaps easier to see in the Greek, for tetelestai is spoken by Jesus in the perfect tense. There is no English equivalent to the Greek perfect tense. The perfect tense means that something happens at a specific point in time and continues on into the future with ongoing results. Hence, Jesus paid all of mankind’s sin debt at that very moment and for eternity.
Properly understanding debt this Easter season is of critical importance. It is not a material or monetary debt, but one that possesses eternal consequences for our soul. Hell is no longer our destiny because “Jesus paid it all….” We will be able to stand before holy God and be ushered into eternity with Him.
For an in-depth discussion on atonement, the following book is recommended: The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review, by David Allen, B&H Academic, 2016.
Although not the focus of this post, debt directly opposes biblical stewardship, and the amount of debt is affecting our churches as it prevents Christians from practicing the biblical discipline of generosity.
I had a conversation with a close friend a few years ago, and he asked me a question that I chewed on for days afterward: Do those of us who adhere to the doctrines of grace tend to downplay the resurrection of Christ? Do we, in our drive to make everything gospel-centered and cross-saturated unintentionally underemphasize the final miracle in the doctrines of grace, the vindication of the Son by the Father in the empty tomb?
The more I have thought about it, the more I wonder if perhaps there is not some subtle truth in this notion, though there is no way to empirically substantiate it. As adherents to historic evangelical orthodoxy, we love to proclaim Good Friday and its staggering implications for fallen humanity. Rightly, we cherish the great truth of Christ’s substitutionary, effectual death on behalf of His people. We exalt His propitiating the wrath of the Father—the wrath that we deserved to bear, Christ bore. How could we not exult in so glorious a truth?Centrality of preaching the cross
We speak often of Christ’s active and passive obedience and the application of both for the imputation of His righteousness to sinners: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” That may be the Olympus of theological truths.
As I thought of these things and my friend’s question, I realized that in my own speaking of the gospel, I always frame as the “person and work of Christ” or His substitutionary atonement, but invariably, I (unintentionally, of course, I’m not suggesting any of us does this on purpose), leave off the resurrection. In the past few days, I have found myself saying “Christ’s death…and resurrection in our place.” After all, His resurrection secured our resurrection and Paul tells us that we are raised in Him.
The resurrection has been the focal point of attack from atheists and liberals throughout the history of the church. Jesus contended with the Sadducees whose central theological thrust was a denial of the resurrection. In the Enlightenment, British empiricist David Hume virtually made a career out of attacking the validity of Christ’s resurrection in his assault on the Christian faith. Hume, the Sadducees and all skeptics know that if one proves the resurrection of Christ false, then the Christian faith and its supernatural power collapses like a house of cards.8 devastating results if we lose the empty tomb
Of course, we who cherish sound evangelical doctrine certainly also cherish the resurrection of Christ, for without it, the cross is void of significance. With Good Friday looming in a matter of days, Paul’s exposition of the centrality of the resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:12-22 serves as a good reminder for us all of the catastrophic consequences for our fallen world if Christ “be not raised.” If the resurrection is not true, then Paul says eight awful truths emerge that renders false the Christian faith. If Christ is not raised, then:1. Not even Christ is raised.
This is the first and most obvious consequence. This is nuclear fallout. If there is no resurrection from the dead, as Hume and the Sadducees claim, then Christ’s body was eaten by dogs or taken by thieves or secretly removed by Jesus’s disciples or there exists another naturalistic explanation for the claim by hundreds of witnesses to have seen the risen Lord.2. The preaching of the gospel is useless.
The good news is then no news. Actually, it is bad news. For, apart from the resurrection, Jesus has not conquered suffering, sin or death and these three evils will forever be our conquerors. As Barney Fife always loved to tell people while dispersing a crowd in Mayberry, there is nothing to see here.3. Faith in Christ is worthless.
Faith in a lifeless corpse buried somewhere in the Middle East will save no one. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then Hebrews 11 would better be dubbed the “hall of fools” instead of the hall of faith.4. Every witness to the resurrection and all preachers of the resurrection are liars.
To deny the resurrection is to call the apostles and every other New Testament leader liars. They are not simply mistaken, but are peddling a whopper of a myth. Jesus, too, is a liar, for it was He who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”5. Christianity is a fairy tale
Scripture is nothing but a book of history comingled with superstition and myths. Missions and evangelism are a colossal waste of time, energy and money. We do not waste effort and resources peddling Mother Goose and we should not waste our time on this ancient myth.6. All of humanity is still in its sins.
What Paul says remains true, “The wages of sin is death.” Our world is still fallen, still captive to sin, still enslaved to death.7. Everyone who died is in hell.
There remains no sacrifice for sins, if Christ be not raised. This consequence follows from the sixth one and means that every human being will face the full, unmediated wrath of God for all eternity.8. Christians are the most pathetic people on earth.
Paul puts it this way, “If Christ be not raised, then we are of most men to be pitied.” Indeed. And this is why the world, as Paul says so well in 1 Corinthians 1, sees the cross of Christ as foolishness. If every part of the Gospel is not true, then we will have spent our days pursuing a God who will not be able to benefit us beyond the grave. Not only are we objects of pity, the skeptics around us are correct. Blaise Pascal’s famous “wager” will do little to make us feel better in eternity.
Soon, the Christian world will celebrate both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. In all the teaching, talking and theologizing we who march behind the banner emblazoned with the five solas tend to do, let us remember that we cannot have the one without the other.
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My wife and colleagues at Southwestern Seminary have asked me this week, “Are you doing OK? You’re acting weird and a little off.” Weird – no; a little off – yes. I’ve been highly introspective this week and overwhelmed with a single thought. Let me explain.
There is a confluence of upcoming events that have caused me to be highly introspective, namely my 10-year anniversary at Southwestern Seminary, turning 50 years old, and my daughter’s 11th birthday. These events have caused me to reflect on the past decade and ponder the next. Of course, many memorable “firsts” have occurred over the past 10 years, such as:
- The salvation of three of my four children.
- Listening to each of my children say “Daddy” for the first time.
- Hiking the Sonoran Desert with my wife.
- Drinking tiste (cacao-based beverage in Nicaragua) and eating nilgai and oryx.
- Receiving my first black eye from one of my sons (wrestling my four kids, I miscalculated the launch of one my children from the bed).
- Watching a flamingo bite one of my sons.
- Seven sets of stitches among the Patricks (two sets for me alone).
However, what has overwhelmed me with a single thought is reflection on the weighty experiences and life transitions that have occurred in my life over the past decade, including:
- Changing careers from a “business as missions” vocation to full-time vocational ministry, accompanied by an initial sevenfold decrease in salary.
- Selling a house, purchasing a new house, and moving my wife of two years with one child in a stroller and one in utero.
- Changing church families and ministry service.
- Selling two vehicles (bye-bye to my truck) and purchasing a minivan.
- Starting and graduating from seminary.
- Four additional pregnancies (we started the decade with one child), experiencing the loss of one and birth of three.
- The death of my mother and sister after they succumbed to long-term diseases.
- The diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer in my wife and her subsequent miraculous healing.
- The cancer diagnoses and healing in two additional family members.
- The countless home-goings of many men and women of faith.
- The emotional launch of 4,272 graduating Southwestern Seminary students across the globe.
- Mentoring numerous young Timothys, both celebrating and grieving with them through life.
This historical synopsis attests to hours of prayer, rollercoasters of emotion, and highs and lows in personal relationships. Your life probably has similar experiences and transitions. I am exhausted just reliving the past decade in my mind. However, the emotional exhaustion and the events themselves are not what have overwhelmed me. The overwhelming thought that preoccupies my mind upon reflection on these events is that of God’s faithfulness.
Despite life circumstances and my own shortcomings, God has been faithful through all. He is El HaNe’eman, the faithful God (Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalm 36:5, 119:90; Lamentations 3:22-23; 1 Thessalonians 5:24). He has been my provision and my security through the sleepless nights, uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and grief. I can truly attest that He is “my refuge and my fortress” (Psalm 91:2). I am overwhelmed in praise for my God of unwavering faithfulness in the midst of the fragility of life.
Have you taken a moment to contemplate how faithful God has been in your life? I invite you to do so; to be overwhelmed with El HaNe’eman. It is fine for folks to perceive you being “a little off” this week. Let your mind be preoccupied with God’s faithfulness. Both Moses and Joshua frequently recounted God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel in the Old Testament. Their minds became preoccupied with El HaNe’eman. It is beneficial to be reminded of the God who loves us and whom we worship. We do not worship a god of unfaithfulness.
As I pen this post, Resurrection Sunday is approaching, yet another reminder of God’s faithfulness. He faithfully kept His promise to send a Savior who paid the penalty for my sin and conquered death so that I, even I, may have everlasting life with Him. In 1 John 1:9 we are told, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Praise Him for His faithfulness!
“What could an unsanctified man do in Heaven, if by any chance he got there? Let that question be fairly looked in the face and fairly answered. No man can possibly be happy in a place where he is not in his element and where all around him is not congenial to his tastes, habits and character.” –J. C. Ryle
Though oft-neglected, understanding sanctification is vital for a thriving Christian life. Those of us who have been walking with Christ for any length of time recognize that the work of sanctification is slow. There is no insta-sanctification or seven steps to become successfully sanctified. It is slow, with many twists and turns. It’s also deeply personal as we each have different areas of life in which the Spirit is working. Sanctification is also a highly corporate project as well. The “us” of sanctification is just as important as the “I” within the Christian life.1. Sanctification takes place in two parts
Sanctification is the cooperative work of God and Christians (Phil. 2:12–13) by which ongoing transformation into greater Christlikeness occurs. Such maturing transpires particularly through the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3: 18; Gal. 5: 16– 23) and the Word of God (John 17: 17). Sanctification is not about perfection, but persistence. Fighting sin is a lifelong endeavor. The believer cooperates with the Holy Spirit working in them, their works being an expression of gratitude for their salvation. Sanctification, therefore, begins at the moment of conversion.
The Bible gives us two ways of understanding this doctrine. First, sanctification is definitive. This is God’s work of setting believers apart from non-believers. Even the newest believer who trusts in Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross is considered a “saint” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). In this sense, Christians are “sanctified” in the present (1 Cor. 6:11), “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11), “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20), and similar definitive (past-tense) statements. When we trust in Christ by faith we are set apart in Christ and considered to be saints based on the work of Christ for us.
Sanctification is also progressive. This active growth proceeds from the life we live by faith in Jesus Christ. Continuing to trust in the finished work of Christ, we grow in Christlikeness by cooperating with the Holy Spirit in seeking to live more faithfully in accordance with God’s word.2. Sanctification is hard
Sounds easy right?
Regrettably, there is no silver bullet to sanctification. In Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Gerhard O. Forde says our sanctification is “simply the art of getting used to justification.” While this may look good on a coffee cup or Pinterest board, it’s far from that simple.
Without a doubt, justification is a beautiful doctrine, but it is not the sum of the Christian life. All biblical doctrines are necessary for understanding our life in Christ. All the Scriptures are vital for the Christian. All of Jesus and his work is necessary, not just a part of him. Thus, the Christian faith, with all its rich theological reflection and truth, is best understood in light of our union with Christ. This essential truth of the Christian faith provides a framework for all of the Christian life.
At every turn of the Christian life, we must remember the distinction between the objective achievement of Christ’s work in redeeming us from sin and death, and the subjective response of such work by faith through the Spirit. Sanctification, in tandem with other crucial facets of faith, is simply one aspect of our union with Christ.3. Sanctification happens because we’re united to Christ
Here’s a helpful way to understand our sanctification in light of our union with Christ: sanctification is part recognizing that our redemption has been accomplished by Christ, and part realizing that our redemption is being applied by the Spirit. We are in Christ by faith, and he is in us by the power of the Spirit. Scripture gives us numerous snapshots of what this looks like:
- Ephesians 1:3—“In him we have every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”
- 2 Corinthians 5:17, 21—“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. . . . For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
- Romans 8:10—“If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
- Galatians 2:20—“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
Lest you think sanctification is simply an exercise in theological research, hear the words of noted theologian Sinclair Ferguson, “Of all the doctrines surrounding the Christian life this, one of the profoundest, is also one of the most practical in its effects” (Ferguson, The Christian Life, 114).
When we understand the profound nature of our union with Jesus, then we begin to see the immense riches available to us for our growth in godliness. Sanctification therefore is multifaceted and meets every one of us exactly where we are on our journey of becoming more like our Savior. Though they may be similar, no two roads of sanctification are alike.4. Sanctification is different for everyone
We are unique human beings who have been affected by the fall in unique ways. Though we all suffer from the same disease, our symptoms are often different. We all have need of the Great Physician, but his remedies are as unique as the ones whom he created. Though sanctification is deeply personal, we must remember that the Alpha and Omega of sanctification is Christ himself.
The first spark of justifying faith sets us apart as “holy ones” of God and simultaneously lights the first flame of our growth in Christlikeness. All tributaries of the Spirit’s subjective application of Jesus’s objective work flow into this one source: to know, enjoy, delight in, and adore Jesus Christ for all time.
In his recent book, How Does Sanctification Work?, David Powlison gives us five factors towards our sanctification:
- God. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)
- Truth. The truth of God’s word taught, sung, preached, studied, and read is one of the surest means by which the Spirit brings about change in our lives
- Wise people. God mediates our change “through the gifts and graces of brothers and sisters in Christ.”
- Suffering and struggle. Though we don’t relish it, suffering and struggles work towards our growth in Christlikeness. Difficulties prompt us to rely on God. Writes Powlison: “People change because something is hard, not because it goes well . . . Struggles force us to need God.”
- You change. Scripture calls us to actively believe, obey, trust, seek, love, confess, praise, and take refuge. We are not passive. The mystery of faith is that we are 100% responsible, yet 100% dependent on outside help.
How these factors play out in each of our lives may look drastically different. The Spirit is at work, applying the objective work of Christ, yet that work touches us all differently. While journeying towards the same goal, each believer will have a distinct path which they will tread.5. Sanctification is a community project
Though sanctification is personal, it is also deeply corporate. Christians are called into a body, a group of other believers, in order to experience the work of the Spirit in our lives together. Christ died for a people. Apart from the body of Christ, sanctification is impossible. This is the way God designed the Christian life.
There is no such thing as a growing Christian apart from an active life in the body of Christ. This is so because a clear evidence of sanctification is that we are thinking of Christ and others more than ourselves. When we are not overly preoccupied with ourselves then we can rest assured that our sanctification is progressing. Our sanctification is intimately bound up in our love for and service to others. Those who are in Christ are forgiven sinners, sufferers who find shelter from life’s storms, and saints in process. And, we are in this together.6. Sanctification is slow
Sanctification is a slow work. There are numerous reasons for this. I conclude with two. First, we can resist the work of the Spirit. Again, one factor of our sanctification is ourselves. Therefore, when we defy the Spirit’s work, Scripture calling that “quenching” the Spirit. Another way to say this is that through our stubbornness we effectively snuff out the flame of the Spirit in our lives. The result of such “quenching” (cf. 1 Thess. 5:19) may lead to a season of spiritual dryness.
Second, there is no part of our human existence unaffected by the fall. Our bodies, minds, emotions, relationships, and more have all been spoiled by the decay of sin. Thus, to find healing and restoration is a lifelong process. Though slow, this process of sanctification is good, because it gives us numerous opportunities to lean upon God and see him consistently glorified in our lives.
Like a spouse for whom our affection grows the more we see their beauty, so too is our relationship with God as we grow in our sanctification.
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One of the questions I frequently hear asked of those who read a lot is how they “find time” to read. We’ll deal with the fallacy of “finding time” soon, but making the time to read is not as difficult as you would think. It is simply a question of making reading a priority and taking advantage of natural breaks in your schedule.
Here are five tactics that might help you read more efficiently.1. Prioritize your reading
Let’s dispense with one of the most foolish phrases in the English language to get this started. We should stop using the phrase, “I’ve got to find time to.” We all have twenty-four hours and our lives have become increasingly busy over the last two decades. Then throw in longer commute times and the number of distractions waiting at our fingertips and you quickly realize that “finding time” to sit and read will be nearly impossible.
Since you cannot find the time, what do you need to do? You must make time for it. I ran into this personally with my exercise routine a few years ago. In the early years of our church plant, I took my gym bag with me in the morning and went to the gym during a break in my day. As our church grew and matured, I had a lot less hour-long breaks in the middle of my day and I didn’t want to be working out after work when I could be playing with my kids before dinner. My workout routine suffered for a long time before a friend and I started working out together before breakfast. I couldn’t “find” the time to do it, so a friend helped me make the time for it. In the same way, if you see the importance of regular reading, make the time for it. The discipline will pay off.2. Establish a regular reading routine
We tend to make the most progress on our goals when we have a normal rhythm of doing things we find important. You will find it difficult to read a lot when you only do it in sporadic bursts. Instead, work towards implementing a regular pattern of reading in your day.
One possible rhythm is to do your more demanding reading in the morning and light reading at night. For example, you could get up a little bit earlier and read a good book for a few minutes after your devotional time. You are already in a reading and thinking frame of mind, so this would be a natural time to give yourself to reading. Then, in the evening you could read a novel before you go to bed. The blue light coming from your television screen or phone tends to make your body think it is daytime and messes with your sleep. Cut off the screens about half an hour before bed and read a good novel. You’ll redeem the last few minutes of your day and sleep better too.3. Take advantage of small breaks in your day
Never leave the house without a book in your hand. You never know what your day may throw at you, so you could wind up in a waiting room for close to an hour or waiting for someone who is running 15 minutes late. Instead of taking a quick scroll through social media, use the time to make progress on a good book. These 10 and 15 minute blocks throughout the week can really add up.
This is one of the major benefits or reading on a Kindle or iPad. You can have your entire library at your fingertips. I am still partial to physical books because I do not read as well on a screen. However, if you can read well on a screen, this is a great option for you to get in some serious reading during your breaks.4. Put down your phone
I heard someone say recently that if you printed out your social media feeds and bound them in a book, you would not read them. The constant distraction offered by social media makes reading difficult. When you are reading, you give yourself to sustained concentration and the payoff on reading does not feel immediate in the same way that opening Facebook and seeing a red notification does.
To free up more time to read, put an app on your phone like Freedom that blocks apps for a set period of time. Pick up your book, start a Freedom session, and enjoy the beauty of reading. When you finish an hour of reading, you will be better informed and enjoy a greater sense of satisfaction than you ever would after an hour of watching YouTube videos.5. Listen to audiobooks
If you have a long commute, audiobooks are a great option for getting a lot of “reading” done. When you listen mainly to sports or political talk radio, you can’t really remember most of what you heard during the week. However, if you spend that time listening to an audiobook, you’ll remember a lot more of what you heard and you’ll find it to be infinitely more enlightening and entertaining.
The kinds of audiobooks you listen to will depend on how you read a physical book. When I read books on theology, biblical studies, or the Christian life, I do a lot of underlining and put those underlines in my commonplace book. (This is how I develop my best quotes posts.) Since this is my practice, I usually listen to novels or biographies. I have a membership through Audible that gives me one credit a month and this allows me to get what would usually be expensive books for less than $15.
Right now I am listening to David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, but my favorite audiobooks so far have been The Great Gatsby (read by Jake Gyllenhaal), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (read by Nick Offerman), Of Mice and Men (read by Gary Sinise), and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, The Bully Pulpit (read by Edward Herrmann).Worth the work
Making more time to read will give you a greater understanding of the Bible and the world around you and will give you a lot more to talk about with the people you encounter every day. Take a few of these suggestions and implement them. The reward will be worth the work.
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Peter tells us Paul wrote some things that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16).
Jesus said some difficult things, too.
Twice the Lord told his disciples that if they had faith like a mustard seed they could do jaw-dropping things. In Matthew, mustard seed faith is tied to expelling a demon, and Jesus says those who have such faith can move mountains (Matt. 17:20). In Luke, those with mustard seed faith will be able to forgive those who sin against them since such faith can pluck up mulberry trees and cast them into the sea (Luke 17:6). All kinds of questions enter our minds.
What is faith like a mustard seed?
Why doesn’t our faith move mountains?
Are we failing to see great things from God because of our lack of faith?Encouraging faith
In the stories recounted in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples long for more faith. Then they could do great things for God. Then they could cast out demons and forgive a brother or sister who’s especially annoying. Jesus tells them they don’t need great faith; they need just a little faith. He clearly speaks of a small amount of faith since the mustard seed was the smallest seed known in his day. Jesus also informs his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is as small as a mustard seed (Matt. 13:31).
We’re prone to think if we just had more faith, then God could do amazing things through us. But Jesus tells us something quite astonishing. The issue isn’t whether we are full of faith but whether we have any faith. If we have the smallest amount of faith, God works on our behalf. Jesus stops his disciples short and asks them: Do you believe in me at all? Do you trust God at all?
Why is Jesus’s answer encouraging? Because we don’t get caught in the morass of thinking about whether we have enough faith. When facing a given situation, we call out to God to give us faith—no matter how small. A small amount of faith is sufficient because the focus is not on our faith but its object.
Why is it true that mustard seed faith can move mountains and uproot mulberry trees? Jesus plainly tells us. It isn’t because of the quantity of our faith but the object of our faith. If our faith is in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then it has a great effect. Our faith makes a difference not because it is so great but because God is so great, because he is the sovereign one who rules over all things. Our faith doesn’t thrive when we think about how much faith we have; it springs up when we behold our God—when we see Jesus as the One crucified and risen for us.Standing on the Promises
Still, we have questions about this verse. Does our mustard seed faith move mountains and uproot mulberry trees? Do we see this happen today? Are prosperity preachers right in saying that if we had more faith, we wouldn’t get sick and would enjoy the riches of this world?
First, it’s critical to note Jesus is using an illustration. He’s not literally talking about moving mountains and uprooting trees. There’s no example in Scripture of mountains disappearing because someone had faith. Jesus is teaching that stunning things happen if we have faith. The question is, what kind of stunning things should we expect?
Here we must take into account the entire Bible. The old saying is correct: a verse without a context is a pretext. And the context is the whole Bible, which includes reading it in its covenantal and redemptive-historical timeline. We can’t just pluck any verse in the Bible and apply to our lives without considering how it relates to the sweep of Scripture as a whole.
Faith isn’t abstract; we put our faith in the promises of God, in the truth he has revealed. Scripture never promises believers they will be healthy or wealthy. Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7–10) was probably a physical disease, and though he prayed three times for deliverance, God said “no.” Similarly, it wasn’t God’s will to heal Paul’s ministry partner Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and it wasn’t because Paul lacked mustard seed faith! Additionally, Timothy wasn’t healed miraculously and instantaneously of stomach ailments, but was told to take wine to settle his indigestion (1 Tim. 5:23). Certainly Paul believed God could heal Timothy, but God had determined he would not be healed. Moreover, Romans 8:35–39 clearly teaches some believers are persecuted, and some suffer from lack of food and clothing. God never promised us a comfortable life.
Mountain-moving faith, then, must be based on God’s promises—on what is revealed in his Word—not on what we wish will happen or even fervently believe will happen.
Misguided faith can lead to disaster. In the 1520s, Thomas Muntzer believed he was led by the Holy Spirit to bring in the golden age, and warred alongside the peasants to overturn political power. But Muntzer was inspired by fantasies and died in the revolt he led. He trusted in “spiritual revelations” rather than the written words of Scripture.
We must ask first, then, whether one’s faith is truly based on the Word of God. Otherwise, it rests on the vain imaginations of man.Then what is mountain-moving faith?
The question remains: What is mountain-moving faith? Notice what Jesus says in Luke: Those who have faith like a mustard seed do great things. They have the faith to forgive brothers and sisters who sin against them repeatedly.
The illustration Jesus provides, then, is enormously helpful. We know it’s God’s will that we forgive those who sin against us. Yet when we’re faced with actually forgiving them, we often struggle because the pain is so severe.
Mustard seed faith, then, is faith that kills works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19–21) and produces the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Love, joy, peace, and patience are mountains that can only be climbed by faith; faith, after all, expresses itself in love (Gal. 5:6). Mustard seed faith believes the gospel will go the ends of the earth and triumph over the gates of hell. And the clearest evidence of mustard seed faith is whether you love God and your neighbor.
Our greatest enemies are not outside of us but within. Our greatest foe is the hate and rebellion that overtakes us, and mustard seed faith—because it is placed in Jesus Christ—gives us the victory over our sin.
Yet we are freed from the sin that enslaves when we rely on Christ and not our own strength and works. Mustard seed faith is enormously powerful—not because of our faith, but because it unites us to the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at TGC.
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