Training and Tasting

At least two things keep church discipline from being as understandable and appreciated as it could be. First, too often church discipline is driven by a motivation to punish the disobedient rather than train for obedience. The purpose for disciplining our kids should not be to prove that we are bigger, stronger, or better able to define their sin. We don’t discipline with pain as the end. We discipline to direct them back to the joy of fellowship that comes in obedience. Likewise the motivation for church discipline should be to bring the sinner back into fellowship through repentance and restoration.

A second thing that keeps church discipline from being understood and appreciated is that our communion is not a feast. When an unrepentant sinner is disciplined, what is the only thing that he is prohibited from? We do not prohibit him from attending services, though he usually won’t be interested. We do not stop him from hearing the Word preached. We do not keep him from any interaction with believers, though the nature of those interactions changes. What changes is that he is no longer welcome to have this supper of the Lord, to share the fellowship. That’s why it can also be called excommunication, ex-communion-ed.

A weekly, joyful, harmonious, celebrating time around the Lord’s Table should create quite a taste. The unrepentant should have something to miss. For that to happen, we ought not to miss our opportunity. Eating and drinking by faith is sweet today and strengthening for tomorrow. This meal both satisfies us and fits us for wanting it again. The pull of joyful communion with God through Christ and with each other in Christ should be worth repenting so that we can keep coming.

May God make our communion something that we want so badly that we’ll repent from whatever sin threatens it.

Comparing Kills

Comparing kills. One sure way to kill joy and stir up envy, jealousy, and bitterness is to compare yourself with another, your lot with your neighbors’. God did not make us equal in all ways, nor does He give gifts to His people to the same degree. When we look over the fence, compare piles, and complain that ours is smaller or stinkier, our first mistake is the pride that expects more.

There is, however, another kind of comparing that kills our pride. God commands us to look at this and respond in humility. In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes about how the chosen ones, the holy and beloved of God, should treat one another. We are to put on compassion, kindness, and other Christlike clothes. Then we are to be “bearing with one another, and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other.” The sentence isn’t finished yet, but this command goes far enough. It goes so far, actually, that there must be qualifications coming.

We could call the next phrase a qualification, but the qualification removes limits more than it confines. The apostle makes an inspired comparison: “forgiving each other as (“just as” NAS) the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” “As” (καθὼς) is the killer comparative conjunction. Jesus provides more than an example of forgiveness, He sets the standard. If He forgives, we must forgive.

Jesus told a parable in Matthew 18 to the same effect. Peter asked a numerical question and Jesus gave a qualitative answer. Peter asked how many times he needed to forgive and Jesus described a man who started to choke a man who owed him 100 denarii (about three months worth of pay) when he had just been forgiven 10,000 talents (about 200,000 years worth of pay). Mercy should be shown just as mercy was received.

This is one reason why our corporate confession of sin is so important to our corporate life. If we are not struck by the contrast between His holiness and our sinfulness, then we will not be ready to treat one another with mercy and forgiveness by comparison. Such behavior should kill the weeds of pride, self-righteousness, and unrealistic expectations and grow the peaceful fruit of unity in the soil of humility.

Defining Gifts

I told the following story for our school assembly last Thursday afternoon.

Once upon time there was a boy named Ben Levite. Ben’s father, Jamin, was a scribe by trade. He worked long before computers or typewriters when every book was written by hand, including God’s Law. Ben’s dad enjoyed his job and took his job seriously because he didn’t want to make any mistakes with Scripture.

Ben loved that his dad had such a uncommon and privileged career. Most of Ben’s friends had dads who farmed or shepherded. Some of his friends’ fathers were soldiers in the King’s army, others worked at the palace cooking or in construction. A few of Ben’s cousins had dads who were priests. But Ben took pride in telling others what his dad did.

Copying the law was hard labor. Guiding an ox to plow a straight line in rocky soil takes one kind of strength and determination, but constant focus on jots (dots, small letters such as the Greek iota) and tittles (serifs or an small accent marks) takes all of another kind of muscle and backbone. Scribes worked six days a week and many hours each day. When possible they worked near windows but most of the time they toiled with only the light from candles or oil lamps.

Sometimes the manuscripts they worked from were ragged or faded. Other times the manuscripts were in fine condition but the previous scribes’ penmanship looked like a Kindergarten phonogram test. The work was also very difficult because writing supplies were limited. Papyrus (a sort of paper made out of plants) was not always available and papyrus (a thin material made out of animal skin) was very expensive. Because of these things, most writers used all the space possible and left very little margin. In Ben’s dad’s day the scribes used no punctuation; they didn’t even use spaces between words so that they could save room for more letters. All the sentences ran together making it easy to skip a letter, or words, or accidentally add extra ones.

The work also involved copying from scroll to scroll. Books with spines and numbered pages hadn’t been invented yet. So letter by letter, line by line, scribes paid close attention as they carefully, repetitively dipped pen in ink and stroked out a new copy.

Ben appreciated his dad’s diligence. Going to synagogue services each Sabbath he knew that the priest read from his dad’s handiwork. Most nights at dinner Jamin would tell the family stories from the section of Scripture he had transcribed that day. Ben heard the stories of Joseph in jail due to Potiphar’s lying wife, of Moses leading the people through the Red Sea out of Egypt, of David and Goliath, and of Daniel and the lions’ den. Many dads told their kids about the Passover, but few had read it for themselves in the ancient scrolls.

Ben’s family threw him a party for his 13th birthday. Many family traveled from out of town and all his neighbors came. When the evening was almost over Ben’s dad brought out one final present. Ben quickly untied the string and unwrapped the cloth covering. He could hardly believe what he held in his hands: his very own copy of “Solomon’s Book of Wisdom” (what we know as Proverbs). Ben’s dad had been saving since Ben was born to buy extra scraps of parchment and stayed a little longer at work a couple evenings each week to copy this special edition as a gift. He gave Ben something even he didn’t have himself.

Jamin gave his son a treasure. He also gave his son something transformative. Jamin knew that the word makes a young man wise. The word protects a man’s steps. The word strengthens a man’s hands. The word rejoices a man’s heart. The word lights a man’s path. Ben had been given a gift that would change his life. The whole community would know about this present. They would also see the effects of the book in his life.

Solomon described a similar gift in the first chapter of Proverbs:

Hear, my son, your father’s instruction,
and forsake not your mother’s teaching,
for they are a graceful garland for your head
and pendants for your neck.
(Proverbs 1:8–9, ESV)

The “garland” and “pendant” (or necklace) were symbols of health and prosperity. They were treasures worn, gifts from parents that adorned their kids. Solomon says listening to instruction and obeying teaching make a son look good. They are visible signs that your parents sacrificed to get you something expensive.

In our day, we do not need to handwrite copies of God’s Word to give to our kids. Buying Bibles is easy for us, and many of you will have multiple translations on your phones. Maybe some day your watches will shine holograms of the text in 3-D images. But all your parents and teachers are working hard to give you a great present just like Ben.

Ben’s copy of Proverbs was a costly gift. Your education at ECS is also, paid for with dollars, time, energy, and sacrifices. Your parents are working diligently, and most of the time with happy hearts, to give you something great, something more precious and more apparent then jewelry. We hope that one day you will graduate and that your worship of God will be obvious to the world. We are not copying literal pages of the Bible but we are copying Latin worksheets, science sound-offs, and teaching models for you to have. We are learning songs with you, singing Psalms with you, and stitching raggants onto sweaters for you.

All of this is to make you look good. We want you to listen (hear instruction) and obey (forsake not teaching) your parents (and the teachers your parents partner with). Then your life will be decorated with the gifts of wisdom and God’s blessing.

This Table Is Reserved

God is full of grace. From His fulness He overflows in good things to the undeserving. He gives many good, undeserved things to those who hate Him. Jesus said that His Father makes His sun rise on the evil and sends rain on the unjust. We call this common grace. Do you have food? Do you have sight? Do you have kids? These are all blessings that believers and unbelievers can know.

Christians know another sort of grace, a special grace, a grace not given to everyone. We call it particular grace. God gives it particularly to His elect, those for whom His Son died. Particular grace is exceptional, exclusive, reserved for His people alone.

Does this make us special? Yes. Does this mean we deserved grace? No, not in a million years, no. If grace were earned it wouldn’t be grace.

Consider what the Lord revealed through Jeremiah.

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.” (Jeremiah 9:23–24, ESV)

We don’t honor God by claiming that we deserve His blessings. We also don’t honor God by claiming that we don’t have special, particular blessings that others don’t. It is all about boasting. Everyone boasts. Many boast in self. Some boast that they prohibit boasting, which is a backward way of self-boasting. And those who know particular grace boast in Christ.

This meal of communing is a meal of particular grace. Bread is for men, but the body of Christ is for believers only. Wine is for celebration, but the cup of Christ’s blood belongs only to the people who celebrate a bloody sacrifice on the cross.

Every week we boast in something exclusive. The Lord’s Table is reserved for particular people who received particular grace. If you don’t know Christ, you are invited to Christ but not to this meal. If you do know Christ, this meal invites you to everything in Christ.

Cracks in the Sidewalk

Sin separates. Sin divides what should be united. We know that sin isolates men from the holy God. Sin drives a wedge between friends. The good news declares that Christ reconciles. He unites all things together.

These are the grand canyons of separation, but there are also more subtle splits that sin cracks in the sidewalk. Sin makes enemies out of friends. It also fences off arguments from each other that should be back to back fighting as partners.

For example, sin severs a man’s confession from his conduct. It breaks up what should be joined together. Sin even defends itself by justifying the superiority of one or the other. All works based religions count behavior more important than belief (though that itself is a belief). Many professing believers of the gospel act as if behavior doesn’t matter. But how do we know what we believe? James wrote, “Show me your faith apart from your works (you can’t), and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18, ESV).

For a more specific example, when we confess our sin as a church, we invite believers to kneel. The symbol/ritual of kneeling can’t make anyone humble by itself. It actually can be worse than a worthless formality, it can make someone guilty of hypocrisy. Others are truly humble in heart and yet physically incapable of kneeling. So why bother? What good does that do?

Idolators kneel. Hypocrites kneel. Ignorant men kneel. And humble men kneel. The external ritual can be separated from the truth in at least four ways: 1) by kneeling to the wrong god, 2) by kneeling to show off, 3) by kneeling for who knows why, and 4) by not kneeling at all. But just because there are many ways to divide the symbol from the substance doesn’t mean every emblem is empty.

We are continuing to ask God to make us like Christ, to unite us inside and out. We are continuing to learn what heart pleases God and the appropriate liturgy that matches the heart. We are continuing to confess our sins that separate what should be united.

One Table, Two Bodies

The Lord’s Supper is a meal that acknowledges two bodies and the communion between them.

Our King gave His body, actual flesh and actual blood, to defeat the serpent, to deliver sinners, and to do away with our sorrows. Jesus came from heaven and won the battle of sacrifice in enemy territory. He accomplished His purpose on the cross, rose from the grave three days later, and now the Spirit calls men into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love.

We who believe not only partake of His body, we are His body. Two unions take place: believers with Christ and believers with other believers. Christ is the Head and He joins all us parts together, the church.

Communion is a celebration of His body by His body. Every Christian is invited to an embassy meeting and meal each Sunday in worship. We gather to honor the King, to encourage our fellow citizens, to attend His word.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20–21, ESV)

By His power He incorporates us into His body, by His power we will all individually be transformed into His glorious body. Here we are at a table for two, His body represented on the table and a representative body that comes to the table.

The Tone of His Table

What flavor should season the meal of communion? Because we know that God is a consuming fire, because our salvation from sin required the sacrifice of His only Son’s blood, because there are still enemies to be subdued as His kingdom comes, what should be our mood? The tone at the Table should be consistent with the tone during the rest of our worship.

That means that this meal should be flavored by awe. It should blow us away that we gain from His reward. “Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shoulds’t die for me?” (And Can It Be That I Should Gain?) He humbles us but doesn’t hammer us. We should be full of awe, not anxiety.

The meal should be flavored by faith. We are receiving the kingdom (Hebrews 12:28), expecting that He who did not spare His own Son will also with Him give us all things. We may not be certain when, but we are certain that.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.

The meal should also be flavored by gratitude. I’ve mentioned before that full gratitude empties us. That is, selfishness and thankfulness cannot coexist. Gratitude corrects our vision and pulls us up to remember what is ours in Christ. God doesn’t force us to eat the bitter because He wants us to suffer. His Son already suffered so that we could enjoy the serious sweetness of salvation. “Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!” “And so with thankfulness and faith we rise To respond and to remember” (Behold the Lamb (The Communion Hymn)).

The Disciples Missionaries Made

A disciple-maker should know where he’s going. If he does, then he probably knows his end depends on starting in the right spot. He also won’t be surprised when he arrives at his goal.

John Piper wrote a concentrated post on missions two weeks ago pointing to the January/February cover story in Christianity Today, “The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries”. The CT article describes the findings of sociologist Robert Woodberry who spent a decade researching “the effect of missionaries on the health of the nations.” Piper quotes Woodberry:

Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.

When men “convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ” things start to change not only for them as individuals, but also in their community. That’s why a map showing First World, Second World, and Third World countries relates directly to the presence of the gospel in those places. Most of the First World knows, or at least once knew, gospel roots.

Woodberry observed, and Piper presses, that cultural change surprised the missionaries. Woodberry says, “Colonial reforms (came) through the back door” and “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.” Piper concludes,

The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life.

In other words, “Tree first, then fruit.”

But saying that we should “focus on…conversion” is similar to saying that farmers should “focus on planting.” Trees grow from seeds and seeds must first be sown. Sowing, however, is only the start. Farmers must also water, weed, fertilize, and cultivate the tree to health and strength. They expect and work for more than a successful plant. When buds turn into branches and branches bear fruit all across the field farmers don’t say “these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended.”

It is true that we won’t “achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation” without conversions but, brothers, we are not conversionists. Christ commissioned us to make disciples, not converts. Discipleship starts with conversion but it ends with “teaching them to observe all that [Christ] commanded.” We labor to present every man complete in Christ and that includes teaching them to think like Christ, to talk like Christ, to act like Christ. That kind of stuff gets out.

Why would we seek, and even expect, conversions by God’s sovereign grace but not also expect an entire culture to change as grace grows whole groups of men in their obedience to Christ? Why would we call men to repent and believe, then move on to other fields? Evangelism is only the opening stage of discipleship. What is surprising about believers obeying in obvious and coordinated ways? We don’t say that our arrival at the supermarket was unintended because we had to get out of the driveway first.

“The fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11) only grows from new creations of the Spirit, but the fruit of transformation affects votes, vocation, parenting, medicine, schooling, economics, government, and every other lawful cultural activity on earth. If Christ cares about it, then image bearers can and should, too. If we’re supposed to make disciples of all men, but not all men are supposed to be teachers, then disciple-makers are responsible for knowing how to disciple Christians of every calling. That means we will need a plan for the many at some point down the road since, where two or three sheep are gathered together, they will need to learn how to get buy or sell car insurance from each other.

So, “missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time–for eternal salvation and temporal transformation–are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis and from that root teach them to bear fruit of all that Jesus commanded us.” But many missionaries and pastors want proselytes and then have nothing else for the proselytes to do except read their Bibles and make more proselytes while they wait for heaven. That’s why talking about our aim as making disciples helps us approach our work better than making converts. When we remember that conversion is the start, not the end, we won’t be surprised that God takes whole cultures to better places.

Before It Gets Worse

Last week marked the passing of 41 years since Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized the murder of children in womb. We usually reserve the term anniversary for events worth remembering and celebrating. Wednesday was an anniversary that requires remembering and mourning almost 55 million deaths.

Solomon wrote:

If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
(Proverbs 24:10–12, ESV)

His urging, commanding, and warning applies to more than abortion but not less. We bear national guilt and we will not be able to tell God, “We didn’t know what was happening.”

If God continues to give us over to our lusts we will not be satisfied killing kids to honor “choice.” We will kill kids and call it compassion. This is already happening in Belgium. The Upper House approved a “bill [that] allows minors to ask for euthanasia on the grounds that their illness is terminal, that they are in great pain and that there is no treatment to alleviate their distress.” In his article, Shouldn’t They Know Better, John Knight wrote, “There are no age restrictions. Allegedly, the child has to be considered competent to make a decision about killing himself or herself, in addition to the doctors and child’s parents agreeing to it.”

How could a people–government officials, medical professionals, families themselves–get to the point of calling this kind of killing “compassionate”? A culture gets there by killing for convenience. The step before that is disregard or mistreatment of the vulnerable and weak, like our own kids. May God grant grace to turn the hearts of fathers to their children. May He grant sweeping repentance in our own country before it gets worse.

Near the Top of the Lists

Every Lord’s day morning we set aside specific time in our service to confess our sins. I’m no statistician nor do I listen to the confessions, so I have no data from which to make many conclusions. But what sin would you suppose needs to be confessed by the most people any given Sunday? In other words, what sin is most popular? What sin would you suppose needs to be confessed by any given person most frequently? In other words, what sin is most repeated? And what sin would you suppose needs to be confessed any given Sunday by any given person that is the worst? In other words, what sin does the most damage?

Again, I have no hard facts to support a definitive answer to those questions. However, I suspect that bitterness is a sin that nears the top of all three lists. The author of Hebrews exhorted his readers to “see to it…that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many are defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).

Bitterness corrodes. Bitterness comes from stinging hurts–real or imagined, biting slights–purposeful or perceived, and burning jealously–how unfair for him to get what everyone knows you deserve. Bitterness grows roots in the soil of self-absorption fertilized by the empathy of others. Bitterness is hard to pull up once planted.

Bitterness “springs up and causes trouble.” Misery loves company even if just to make the company miserable. Bitterness lost any sense of proportion and, if the root system has spread, neither smiles nor logic will stem the festering.

By bitterness “many are defiled.” Either that means that many persons are bitterly defiled or many others are defiled by one person’s bitterness. Even though bitterness is often unmovable, it really branches out. It is easy to find reasons to be bitter. Many do, many times. See to it that you nip it in the bud. Confess and repent from any seed no matter how small.