Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Getting the Gospel and Growing Up in the New Year

If there is one thing that distinguishes Christians from any other belief system or religious framework in the world, it is found in their belief, or faith, in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians know that they deserve condemnation for sin and eternal damnation in Hell but have instead received forgiveness of their sin—salvation— and have instead inherited eternal life in Heaven. This transaction as it were was only possible through the substitutionary death and resurrection of the perfect and holy Son of God, Jesus Christ, who absorbed in Himself the eternal penalty that was due unto us. The fear of death and the influence of sin no longer has power over us, rather we are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit who gives us new inclinations and new desires that honor and glorify the Father.

Well what about after that moment of salvation? As it pertains to the individual, what is it that they should be seeking to do while living their life on this side of eternity?

The answer is given to us by the apostles.

They want us to grow up.

The moment of salvation that we experience as Christians is indeed a moment. Meaning, salvation is not an ongoing process—you are either saved or you are not saved. Sanctification on the other hand is an ongoing process and is not a moment in time only. What this then means is that there is work to do in our lives as a part of our sanctification process—though powered by God Himself (Phil 2:13).

Put another way, it is not enough for Christians to memorize and teach John 3:16.

It is not enough for pastors just to preach John 3:16 either. The Apostle Paul had a clear conscience because he “did not shrink from declaring . . . the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) (emphasis mine). Belief in the gospel of Christ is the end of the life of slavery to sin, but it is the very beginning of the life of freedom found in the Christian life.

What the men and women of God need is a constant saturation of the full counsel of the Word of God in order to become more and more sanctified unto Him, being stable in the faith, holding deep convictions, and living holy and blameless lives.

Listen, the natural output of a life that is indwelled and powered by the Holy Spirit of God is a life that, indeed, puts out or generates the fruit of the Holy Spirit of God and this can only happen by nourishing our spirits with the Holy Spirit’s own written Word.

A.W. Tozer once said, “The Holy Spirit never enters a man and then lets him live like the world. You can be sure of that.”

This is because the works of the Spirit are against the works of the flesh as the Apostle Paul details in Romans 8.

Our salvation is our greatest need. After that, however, our next greatest need is our sanctification and there are several reasons for this.

If the only spiritual truth we know—as Christians—pertains to the basics of repentance from sin, faith towards God, baptism, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment, then the Bible tells us we are immature and “unskilled in the word of righteousness” and tantamount to children surviving on milk (Heb 5:13).

This is okay if you were saved yesterday by the way.

For those who have been Christians for years and years . . . we need to stop and consider: do we know the Word of God well? I mean, do we really know it? Do we grasp its truths and can we navigate it quickly in order to enrich our own soul or help disciple another? Are we able to think on our feet and give an answer to those who ask questions or ask for the reason we have hope in our life?

I remember sitting in a men’s group once and one of the men was asking for prayer as he was barely keeping a job, his marriage was falling apart and was headed for a divorce, he had no hope for anything and didn’t know what to do. When asked, he admitted he was struggling with sin and confessed he wasn’t in the Word. This was evidenced by his complete inability to know which direction to turn to find the book of Romans when he was asked to do so.

Friends, how acquainted are we with God’s Word?

In the book of Hebrews, the author gives us some startling insights into the various levels of Christian maturity—and the implications thereof—being especially pointed with those who have been saved for a long time and yet had little more knowledge of God’s truths than when they first believed.

The author was about to get into a helpful and fascinating discourse on the priesthood of Melchizedek and how it tied into Jesus’ priestly ministry, but then had to pause . . .

“About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:11–14)

The word “dull” in verse 11 is a translation of the transliterated Greek word nothros, which means lazy or sluggish. What this tells us then is that this is a self-inflicted problem.

Becoming disinterested in divine truth is a problem of infinite proportions and is in fact a self-perpetuating one. The desire for the Word of God comes from reading it. The only way we have ever desired to read it in the first place is by the initial prompting of the Holy Spirit, so when we suppress that, we are actively engaging in an effort that is at odds with God’s will and thus causes us to become dull and desensitized along the way. It’s a self-licking ice cream cone kind of problem.

These people had been Christians long enough to where they should have amassed a much greater amount of knowledge and attained a higher level of understanding, thus being equipped to teach others themselves.

The most immediate context in this Hebrews passage however highlights their inability to comprehend grander and more glorious truths, like the priesthood of Melchizedek and Jesus Christ. Their ignorance hamstrung their further development. It was so bad that they needed to be reminded of some of the basic truths or “principles of the oracles of God” (vs. 12) all over again.

The writer goes on to explain the ramifications of this self-inflicted problem. He says they need milk—evidenced by the fact that they were unskilled in the Word and apparently lacked the marks, or fruit, of spiritual maturity. In other words, this is not just a ‘level of knowledge’ issue alone.

He said they don’t need solid food as that is only for the spiritually mature. The real wakeup call comes when he effectively states that their powers of discernment are weak at best. This means that in practice they make poor, even sinful, choices in life because of their biblical ignorance.

To be clear, the apostle Peter tells us to long for the milk of the word like newborn infants, but that is precisely the metaphor he intends to use for the reason of establishing the basics from which Christians ought to grow. This is obvious when he follows up with: “that by it you may grow up” (1 Pet 2:2).

This picture of a baby craving milk works in two ways. As far as desire is concerned, we ought to crave the Word like milk. As far as the actual baby is concerned, we ought to grow up and mature. The desire never goes away, though—what better way to illustrate that than with a helpless newborn baby?

There is another aspect to the milk illustration, which concerns the level of maturity of the believer. While our desire for the Word ought to be as rigorous and of a necessity for life as the baby’s is for milk, we ought to look for more and more weight and meat in our diet as we grow up in order to develop from the status of a spiritual baby. Even still, our desire for that meat is as the baby’s for milk. That never changes.

The apostle Paul writes also to the Corinthian congregation:

“I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way” (1 Cor 3:1–3)?

By not growing up from basic gospel truth, they proved to be “people of the flesh.” He used that expression three different times in just three verses(!).

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he spends time explaining the necessity and reason for having gifted preachers and teachers in every church:

“He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (4:11–16) (emphasis mine).

We all know that children are easy targets for deception. This is why they are so blithely led to believe in Santa Clause. They are easy to manipulate and con into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t have thought up themselves. This is why you could pay them a nickel to do almost anything—they have no sense of real value.

It is precisely because of the nature of the immaturity that is inherent in young kids that parents must be their protectors, discerners, and teachers. Who else is there to do this? Who else can teach them the truth? Parents are their shepherds.

It is the same way in the church of God. God has given the church leaders and has given those leaders gifts. These gifts are for the maturing of the flock, so that the flock will not run after the shiniest object, the sweetest candy, or the easiest path. These are the packages that heresy and false teaching come beautifully wrapped in. Even Satan himself masquerades as something he is not—an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14).

We need the Word of God in order to be protected from the enemy of God. Knowing the gospel message is not enough to protect us from the wiles of the devil. Though we will not be snatched from God’s hand, we could still suffer from sinful choices that come as a result of being ill-prepared for his poisonous darts.

Friends, don’t stop learning. Nothing is unnecessary knowledge if it is in the pages of Holy Scripture. Everything in the Old Testament and New Testament is there for our edification and learning in order to grow us up in maturity and into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

We desperately need the solid food of God’s Word. We need to learn the full counsel of God. We need our powers of discernment to be sharpened if we are to have any hope of honoring and obeying God in this evil world that is actively trying to desensitize us to it.

The saving gospel of Christ is the starting point of our spiritual growth and understanding. This is why Paul writes to the Romans: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification” (6:22) (emphasis mine).

We need sanctification because it protects us from sinning against God.

Psalm 119 is a stunning and epic poem—the longest recorded psalm in the Bible—that was probably written by the likes of either David, Daniel, or Ezra. In it, the author wisely declares: “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (vs. 11) (emphasis mine). Just prior to this he writes, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word” (vs. 9).

Then he expresses his longing for God’s word—almost as a baby does for life’s sustenance—“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments” (vs. 10)!

The entirety of Psalm 119 is weighted with these longings and expressions of the greatness of the Word of God, its implications, its effect, and its wonder, and how much the writer longs for it.

All throughout Scripture, the Word of God is seen as a means to protect us and preserve us. The longing of it—and consequently the obedience of it—is a mark of a true Christian, so let the implication of that sink in. If need be, ask God in prayer for a new desire to read and study for the sake of your spiritual growth and to become more like Jesus Christ.

“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).

Let us act upon the exhortation of Hebrews 6:1 and “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.”

Happy New Year, friends!