The Problems with Blessings

Those Christians who are gospel-centered are in great shape to see blessings in context. Good things do not ever exist in a vacuum.

The closest it’s ever come to having good things without problems was in Eden. But even there, everything good was given. No man has ever had anything good from and by and for himself. He has always needed to give thanks. It wasn’t a trial, but it was a test.

After the fall, this is what man naturally hates to do: give thanks. He wants good things that will make him happy, but he doesn’t want them in the real world. He doesn’t want to be in love, he wants to be in love in a movie. He wants to make an idol, have that idol bless him without requiring anything, and then also not to have to deal with the nagging sense of silliness about the process. The last part may be the most difficult.

But, someone might say, what about in heaven? Won’t the blessings there be removed from all problems? In one way, but not in all ways. The blessings may come unattached to new problems, but not from the remembrance of problems. We’ll still have questions such as How did we get there? Who paid for all of this?

In John’s vision in Revelation he “saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5;6). We will always worship God for His love for us, love shown when Jesus died on the cross. Every blessing we enjoy forever is only any good as it is on context of our sin, His sacrifice, and salvation. Blessings don’t come in a vacuum. They come at a cost.

At the Lord’s Table we’re already learning to receive the good from God in the context of trouble. But even those troubles are good in so far as God uses them to keep us dependent on Him for good.

It’s a Lie

I’ve heard it said that our talk talks and our walk talks but our walk talks a whole lot louder than our talk talks. In other words, we’re known not just by what we say but by what we do. “Even a child makes himself known by his acts” (Proverbs 20:11).

Since we speak, then, with both our lips and our lives, and since it’s true that we lie with our lips, then we should also consider that we can lie with our lives. We may not use untrue words, but we may be constantly communicating untruth in our ways. The easiest and worst lie of our lives—worst because it should be the least neglected—is to live as if we do not need God.

The human race wants to “be like God,” but in a way that we replace Him. That is not only difficult, it’s a miserable lie. It’s miserable because it’s pathetic; does the pot really think it can replace its Potter? And it’s miserable for all who do believe it because of the constant head-banging. Trying to replace God is contrary to the inescapable reality that we were made to reflect Him and depend on Him. The truth is that our identity is tied to Him.

Augustine wrote in The City of God:

That is a lie which we do in order that it may be well with us but which makes us more miserable than we are.

Unless we believe, unless we worship, unless we call on the name of the Lord, we cannot be truly blessed because we will be disconnected from the only one who gives true blessing. May we do truth by coming “to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that our works have been carried out in God” (John 3:21).

Big Brother

Jesus is a much better big brother than Esau. Both were willing to give something up, but one gave up to his shame, the other to His glory.

Esau despised his birthright. He was born into a special position but it meant nothing to him, so he basically gave it to his brother. Jesus is the firstborn of creation and the firstborn from the dead. He did give up glory, in a way for a time (see Philippians 2:5-11), but not because He despised His position. Instead it was so that He could eventually share more glory with His brothers.

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)

Even though Jesus had and has a unique place in the heavenly Father’s heart, Jesus did not rub that in. He doesn’t flaunt His exalted position or work to make us feel that we don’t have it. He identified with us, He was “made like his brothers,” in order to “make propitiation,” meaning that our older Brother won His Father’s favor for us by dying for our sins.

At our remembrance of Him in communion He brings us closer to the Father and to each other. He overcomes our grasping for preeminence, our tantrums and envy and posturing. He feeds us. He Himself is our food and our drink by faith. Our Brother did not despise His birthright, but despised the shame of the cross and is the founder and perfector of our faith.

A Profanity Problem

In a paragraph of instruction about how we ought to treat one another, the author of Hebrews named names. In particular, he named the name of one man that we must not be like. There were many men and women of faith to be imitated in chapter 11, but in chapter 12 we must not be like Esau.

Starting in Hebrews 12:12 we’re told to pursue peace and holiness. We are to help everyone obtain grace. We’re to weed out bitterness that causes trouble and that defiles. And then we’re to be careful:

that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.

The Old Testament doesn’t ever refer to sexual immorality by Esau, so, while there is a connection between the two sins in verse 16, Esau especially embodies the latter. His sin was that he was “unholy” (ESV), “godless” (NAS), or “profane” (KJV). The Greek word is  βέβηλος, an adjective describing something worldly without transcendent significance. Eating stew could have been good if Esau had received it from God with gratitude. It was no good for him to eat it without thanks, without humility, and to trade something special for it. That’s profane.

Esau didn’t just eat in panic, he ate out of proportion. He desired the bowl in order to fill his belly more than he desired God’s blessing.

That wasn’t the end of the story. The very next verse, Hebrews 12:17:

For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

The “afterward” wasn’t after the meal, it was years after when Jacob stole the blessing. But the process started when Esau bartered away his birthright. His life was represented in the act of grasping the things of earth instead of receiving God’s gift in the things of earth.

There are many in the church today with a profanity problem, not just in the worldly language they use, but in despising the privileges God has given them that go beyond the immediate and the visible.

Combing Hair at Thermopylae

On the first day Evangel Classical School met for classes I read the following quote from C. S. Lewis during my convocation address.

If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavourable. Favourable conditions never come.

I had seen that quote in a few places, most applicably on the back cover of a book about classical Christian education. I quoted it to comfort those of us with more butterflies than boldness. It’s similar to the panic a rookie teacher might feel upon opening a fresh box of dry erase markers to find that none of them came with caps; would we open a school only to squeak out a faint mark? Our circumstances, while certainly not the worst they could have been, were not favorable. We were far from bouquets of newly sharpened pencils, or even from knowing which brand of pencil sharpener would survive for more than a week. We aspired to this noble task, though having more zeal than knowledge doesn’t always work out so well. We all know more than we did then—thank God—and that includes knowing that classical Christian education is an indispensable burden. We want it even more badly now.

Since that opening of opening days I have read Lewis’ quote in its native paragraph. He used those lines in an address titled “Learning in Wartime.” You can find it for free online or in a collection of Lewis’ articles called The Weight of Glory.

In his address Lewis raised and replied to a question about the legitimacy of study—especially study of the liberal arts—while in the middle of a war. It was October, 1939, and World War II was less than two months old. From the location of Lewis’ lectern in Oxford, England, his listeners were more than academically concerned.

[Every student] must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to Heaven or to hell to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything.

Lewis argued from the greater to the lesser. He showed that Christians believe that death is always only one step away and that Heaven or hell await. A war reminds us of our upcoming death but it does nothing to increase the chance of our death. We have always been going to die.

The vital question is not whether learning in wartime is defensible but whether learning during any of our time on earth is. If teachers can, if teachers should, sow seed in the scholastic field with eternal reward or eternal punishment on the other side of the fence, then teaching and learning is appropriate when nations fight over a portion of the field.

Lewis observed that God gave men an appetite for knowledge and beauty. Want of security has never stopped the search, otherwise “the search would never have begun.” Instead,

[Men] propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

God didn’t make tastes and give men tongues to make them feel guilty for not caring about eternity. He made tastes for tongues so that we would eat and drink what “God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” The apostle Paul figured that Christians would go to dinner parties, sometimes dinner parties thrown by pagans. He didn’t instruct the Christians what to say, he told them what to put on their plate. If there’s a way to hunger for barbecue “to the glory of God,” then certainly there’s a God-honoring way to hunger for knowledge.

Lewis concluded that, not only is the pursuit of knowledge before Heaven and hell permitted, it is mandatory. God doesn’t concede study to us, He commands it. God gifts some to study more deeply but He calls every image-bearer to study devotionally. That is, our reading of both of God’s books—the world and the Bible—should increase our devotion to God. English homework and ethical holiness don’t compete against each other, they inform and activate one another.

The Lord’s commission requires us to make more than converts who profess faith. We are to make disciples who practice faith, here and now, on earth. “Disciple” is not even a good English word. It is a Latin word sounded out for English. The Latin word is discipulus which means student, learner. It’s exactly what the Greek word mathetes means in Matthew 28.

Jesus said, “Teach [disciples] to observe all that I have commanded you.” God made us to be, then saved us to be, then train others to be certain kinds of persons. He created and redeemed us to live a certain way. It is to live—whether thinking, talking, reading, writing, painting, working, playing, buying, selling, mowing, weeding, cooking, cleaning—in such a way that acknowledges Jesus is Lord. This is our confession, something we say. It is also our obsession, something we embody.

Jesus created all things. “Without Him was not any thing made that was made.” Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of His power.” He delights to keep gravity pulling and goats skipping and planets spinning. All true science is the Lord’s; insects and volcanoes and circus animals. He rules over every nation, “having determined allowed periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” and presidents and trending political hashtags on Twitter. Languages? He is the Word. Numbers and physics and formulas, musical notes and Picardy thirds, logic and literature are all from Him and through Him and to Him.

Great are the works of the LORD,

studied by all who delight in them.
(Psalm 111:2)

We cannot imagine anything lawful that cannot be studied and appreciated and used for His lordship. Imagination itself ought to be sanctified and put to His service. So Lewis said,

[H]uman culture is [not] an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we.

Everything we do that is done “as to the Lord” is received by the Lord.

None of the above requires a school per se, but this life of discipleship is not different from classical Christian enculturation. We received a way of life under Christ’s lordship and we seek to pass that on. There is a way to talk to adults that pleases Christ, a way to dress, a way to respond when someone kicks a soccer ball in your face, a way to listen and match pitch with the person standing next to you. A school like ECS promotes such a culture.

But the circumstances are not favorable. It used to be that the government legislated the height of the drinking fountain outside the bathrooms, now the government claims authority over who can go into each bathroom. The government, though, is not the biggest problem. Fear and distraction within the church trump all that is outside. Christians have forgotten the cost of discipleship. Christians have dared anyone to make them think, or read, or pay, or die. Troubling things have happened in the shire, not while we were off fighting wizards and orcs and evil, but while we were watching Netflix.

Friends of ECS, you have given us your evening. A team of servants have worked to give you a feast of tastes and sounds and sights. And yet all of us must give up much more. We must give up our lives and “get down to our work.” Hannibal wanted to beat Rome so badly he took elephants over the Alps in winter. The cause of Christ is greater than that of Carthage, and more difficult.

We work “while the conditions are still unfavourable.” We play soccer during recess on a parking lot, but we are thankful that it’s not on a gravel driveway (like we used to). Our part time teachers do not teach for the money, which is good, because we only have baby carrots to dangle in front of them. Many families want this enculturation for their kids but cannot afford it. We have not turned anyone away for financial reasons yet, but we would like for that to always be true.

We have more things to be thankful for than to complain about. God has already grown great fruit in such a young and tiny orchard. Favorable conditions may never come, but we ask some of you to join us, some others to come further up and further in, and some to be encouraged that “in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord.”

Eat, drink, laugh, learn, and give heartily as for the Lord and not for men even without favorable conditions.


These are the notes from my talk for the ECS Fundraising Feast at the beginning of May.

A Tomb in Canaan

God purposes to get praise for His glory by working out His will in stages.

He made a promise to Abraham about possessing land while calling Abraham to be a pilgrim. Then Abraham acquired a small piece of property in the land in order to bury his wife. Generations later took control of much of the land, and we believe that there is still coming the final fulfillment for Israel’s boundaries as described to Abraham under Christ’s reign in the land of Canaan. At each stage: God be praised.

We also have only been given a portion of what will be the uniting of all things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ “we have obtained an inheritance,” we’ve been brought into some predestined promises. And we’ve only got a small, albeit supernatural, piece of that inheritance now.

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:13–14)

A dead body buried in a tomb in Canaan became a seed of possession for an entire people. A dead body buried in another tomb in Canaan became a seed of salvation for another people, and the same Spirit that raised that body from the dead dwells in us. There is “one body, and one Spirit” (Ephesians 4:4). The Spirit is the seed and seal we share together of faith and a future. We are “saved to sin no more.” When our tongues lie silent in the grave, we will a sweeter, nobler song about His power to save.

This phase is great by grace, and yet we are not in the possession of all that will be ours for all time.

Internal Adornment That Shows

Moses does not paint a flattering picture of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, in Genesis. Twice she resents and punishes others in her household. Twice she followed her husband’s lead and lied to those outside her household. Once she even laughed at the promise of God. She did praise the LORD for the birth of her son Isaac, but the very next thing she did was lash out and demand that Abraham “cast out this slave woman with her son.” She couldn’t even bring herself to use their names.

Yet there must be more to her life. The author of Hebrews wrote, “By faith, Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11). Initially she doubted, but her heart turned around.

And at the beginning of 1 Peter 3, Peter used Sarah as an example, even exalted her as the “mother” of all faithful women who “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah illustrated internal adornment and the sort of external conduct that can “win without a word” a husband who does not obey the word (1 Peter 3:1). Respectful and pure conduct adorn women who hope in God, and this is a powerful testimony.

Ladies of faith, what have you learned from your “mother,” Sarah? How do you view your husband, and your future? If you’re not married, how are you practicing heart obedience to your dad? Are you repenting from Sarah-like pettiness and resentments? Above all, are you pursuing Sarah-like faith in and obedience to the LORD?

The Top of the Faith Chart

When we co-opt the apostle John’s language and talk about faith as victory that overcomes the world, we do so without smirking or crossing our fingers behind our back because our faith is in victory that overcomes death. If your god can’t do something about death then he can only offer so much.

Abraham believed in the God who overcomes death.

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17–19)

Faith that believes in resurrection power is at the top of the faith chart. What is more impossible than being raised from the dead? In Abraham’s case, he was prepared to act based on it. In our case, we are prepared to eat and drink based on it.

There is no “figuratively speaking” with the resurrection of Jesus because He died. He wasn’t almost sacrificed. He carried the wood of His altar, was bound by nails to it, and though God could have sent 10,000 angels to take Him off the cross, a “close to death” would only made us close to salvation. He died and was three-days-buried dead.

But then He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. The angels told visitors to His tomb: “He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” He was “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead.” This is literally speaking.

When we eat the bread and drink the wine we proclaim His death but not because He’s dead. He lives! Our faith is in the resurrection and the life! May your faith be nourished by such a meal in such a powerful Savior who has overcome death for us.

Close to Home

God will test our faith. The apostle Peter wrote that various trials cause heaviness:

so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:7)

Solid faith, not faith-leaf—like gold leaf, a thin layer of faith hammered around the outside—solid faith now will result in our being esteemed and rewarded by God when we see Jesus Christ and will no longer need faith.

In the meantime the “various trials” that do this testing are manifold. One could translate the Greek adjective “multi-colored.” The trials come in different shapes and sizes. They also come in different degrees of importance to us.

God tests our faith through national elections, but that doesn’t hit quite as close to home as, say, losing your home. Or if He’s given you a job, you know it was by His grace that you got the job, and now He appears to be taking that job away by requiring you to stand up for righteousness. Or if a child or a spouse gets very sick. Or if the plans you had, plans to be productive and minister for Him, get interrupted. These and more will test your trust in God.

I’ve heard it said, “Put your Isaacs on the altar.” If God wants you to surrender something you think is important, even crucial, for His mission, then You must trust Him that He will bless you as He takes it away. This is a test of faith, a purifying of faith, and a strengthening of faith. We need it. And if we fail a test, we don’t have to wait a certain amount of time before we try again, we just need to repent and turn back to Him in trust.

Well, is it or not?

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, at least for myself to reference in the future. It’s from Wayne Grudem’s book, Politics – According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture, pages 64-65.


IS THE UNITED STATES A CHRISTIAN NATION?

(1) Is Christian teaching the primary religious system that influenced the founding of the United States? Yes, it is.


(2) Were the majority of the Founding Fathers of the United States Christians who generally believed in the truth of the Bible? Yes, they were.


(3) Is Christianity (of various sorts) the largest religion in the United States? Yes, it is.


(4) Did Christian beliefs provide the intellectual background that led to many of the cultural values still held by Americans today? (These would include things such as respect for the individual, protection of individual rights, respect for personal freedom, the value of hard work, the need for a strong national defense, the need to show care for the poor and weak, the value of generosity, the value of giving aid to other nations, and respect for the rule of law.) Yes, Christian beliefs have provided much of the intellectual background for many of these and other cultural values.


(5) Was there a Supreme Court decision at one time that affirmed that the United States is a Christian nation? Yes, there was, but that wasn’t the issue that was under dispute in the case. It was in an 1892 decision, Church of the Holy Trinity v. the United States, 143 US 457 (1892). The ruling established that a church had the right to hire a minister from a foreign nation (England), and thus the church was not in violation of an 1885 law that had prohibited hiring “foreigners and aliens … to perform labor in the United States.” The court’s argument was that there was so much evidence showing the dominant “Christian” character of this nation that Congress could not have intended to prohibit churches from hiring Christian ministers from other countries. It seems to me that here the Supreme Court was arguing that the United States is a “Christian nation” according to meanings (3) and (4) above. There is a long history of significant Christian influence on the United States.


(6) Are a majority of people in the United States Bible-believing, evangelical, born-again Christians? No, I do not think they are. Estimates range from 18 to 42% of the US population who are evangelical Christians, and I suspect a number around 20% is probably more nearly correct. In a 2005 poll, Gallup, after doing a survey designed to find how many Americans had true evangelical beliefs, came up with a figure of 22%. In addition, there are many conservative Roman Catholics who take the Bible plus the official teachings of the Catholic Church as a guide for life, and a significant number of them have a personal trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. But even if these groups are added together, it does not constitute a majority of people in the United States.


(7) Is belief in Christian values the dominant perspective promoted by the United States government, the media, and universities in the United States today? No, it is not.


(8) Does the United States government promote Christianity as the national religion? No, it does not.


(9) Does a person have to profess Christian faith in order to become a US citizen or to have equal rights under the law in the United States? No, certainly not. This has never been true. In fact, the Constitution itself explicitly prohibits any religious test for public office:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States (Article VI, section 3).

In conclusion, how can we answer the question, “Is the United States a Christian nation?” It all depends on what someone means by “a Christian nation.” In five possible meanings, the answer is yes. In four other possible meanings, the answer is no. Because there are that many possible meanings in people’s minds (and possibly more that I have not thought of), I do not think the question is very helpful in current political conversations. It just leads to arguments, misunderstanding, and confusion.