The Lord’s Table will be sweeter the last time we taste it than it was the first time. The apostle John recorded the Lord’s rebuke to the Ephesian church that they had lost their first love. But he didn’t want them to go back to the limitations of love’s beginnings, he wanted them to go back to the intensity of what was fresh.
Each week we discover fresh reasons to love. Each day brings hundreds of new graces to us, undeserved gifts. Counted by flock, or considered in the universal church, how could we calculate the new mercies of every morning for every Christian? And what about the addition of new believers into the Christ’s Body every week?
A thousand years ago in Britain they made a scarlet dye from whelks (small mollusks or sea snails), said not only not to fade as it aged in the sun and rain, but the dye became bolder and more beautiful in color. The gospel is the same. As we eat and drink today we have more reason to rejoice than last week. Think of how much fruit has grown since the first supper the night that Christ was betrayed. It may be true that familiarity breeds contempt, but it will be a long time before we’re truly familiar with the full price or final profit of the cross. Think of how many haters have been won by His conquering love. Think of how much sin in your own heart He has loved out of you. It is more now than ever and, even if hatred increases, it is because haters have more to hate by God’s grace.
The problem with eternity is that it still won’t be long enough to develop every deep hue of Christ’s loving sacrifice. But it will still be good for us to watch and we will always have fresh reasons for intense love.
As Christians we know that we are in the world but not of it. Navigating this relationship requires more than quoting a great verse, it requires applying great wisdom. How do we know when we are appropriately in while also not being inappropriately of? How do we live here without living like here?
We can’t address every particular right now, but we can say that worldliness is a sin that should be addressed. Many professing Christians, Christian organizations, and churches deliberately adopt worldly behavior for sake of evangelism, sometimes behavior that didn’t even belong to their own pre-Christian days. Their philosophy of ministry aims to show the world how much Christians are like the world. While specific turns along the way are important, we should at least acknowledge that we can’t be going east and not-east at the same time.
Loving to be loved by the world is part of what it looks like to have the love of the world. In other words, unwillingness to stand out from the world is worldly. The world talks about non-conformity, but only to be conformed to the cool group talking about non-conformity. Christians who blur the lines of Christian doctrine and obedience are acting like the worldly blurrers, not believers.
Thinking that we can be friends of Christ and friends with the world is worldly, not obedience. Jesus’ half-brother James wrote, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). The apostle John commanded believers not to love the world (1 John 2:15) and said, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).
We will have enemies. We will be at odds either with God or with those who are at odds with God. To the degree that we compromise our loves with the world we need to confess that as sin to God. He will forgive us, cleanse us, and conform us to the mold of His Son.
Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4 in 1 Corinthians 2:9. “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Paul uses Isaiah to point to the work of God’s Spirit who teaches us and helps us to understand all the things that are freely given us by God (1 Corinthians 2:12).
We enjoy a variety of endowments freely given us by God, but near the roots of His grace is our justification by faith. We celebrate Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg 496 years ago last Thursday, a document that lifted up the principle of sola fide, salvation by faith alone. And boy do we need that.
In the context of Isaiah 64 and all the things that God has prepared, two verses later, and the reason we usually turn to this chapter, the prophet says, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (verse 6).
This affects our attitude at the Lord’s Table when we think both about what plagues us and about the things God has prepared for us. We don’t come to this table in miserable guilt. We do not work ourselves into a lather of bad feelings because our best bad feelings are like filthy rags. We cannot dig conviction deep enough to make ourselves worthy to eat and drink. We will not get our lives, like leaves, into a shapely pile with the leaf-blower of shame and keep them arranged. We couldn’t if we wanted to because the gusts of sin blow too strong.
We come to this Table remembering all the things that God has prepared for us including God-given righteousness. We come by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We come in joy because no one else has a God like this. The things He has prepared for those who love Him include His potent love which cleanses us and forgives us and frees us for eternal fellowship. He replants us and enlivens us by the cross, not by demanding that we chase down all our guilt with a bigger rake.
Last Sunday was Orphan Sunday. It’s not a holiday, though many churches observe it in the United States and in other countries. For that matter, November is National Adoption Month, at least here in the States. In both cases, the point is to make special effort to heighten awareness of year-round needs throughout the world.
As a church we support Andrew Schneidler and the Children’s Law Center of Washington. He is a lawyer helping make permanency possible for families that don’t have financial resources. We give him money each month and make supplication for him almost every Sunday. As a church we also took up support for the Good Shepherd’s Children Home in India through Kidstown International. Likewise, we send money and make prayers for the kids and for the leaders of that orphanage.
We’ve promoted (and run) in the Adoption Run for Antioch Adoptions. Some of us even organized an event a few years ago to cut adoption costs for a family desiring to take kids into their family. Last Sunday night we also made a large statement through a small party on behalf of the Hall family who are closer than ever to bringing in to their home some kids who don’t have a home, kids who don’t have a place or parents to parent them.
In less brochure-able ways, we are involved in orphan prevention. We do have the obligation according to James 1:27 to help widows and orphans. We also have the obligation to love our wives, respect our husbands, and not exasperate our children but raise them in the culture of Christ worship. It may be too dramatic to call that orphan prevention, but it is not too dramatic to call it obedience to God our Father. We are to lay down our lives for one another, for others, including little others.
From our homes, to Western Washington, to other continents, God created us to love others, especially those who are weak and needy. If we only love those who earn our love, those who make it easy for us to love them, then we do not realize how potent love like God’s is.
What is the single most important thing you can do to grow into God’s image? Do you remember when the apostle Paul wrote about believers being “filled with all the fullness of God”? Is that even allowable? It’s an inspired description, so it must be. But how does that happen? What is the process? We’re naturally too weak to do it on our own, therefore Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers that they:
may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18–19, ESV)
The single most important and humanly impossible need is for us to know the love of Christ. It’s not that we need to love Him more, though we will. It’s not that we need to obey for 70 years or by strength 80, though He may enable us to do that. We will be deified–filled up with all God’s fullness–as we come to have His love wrapped around our heads.
John Bunyan wrote an entire book on these two verses, The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, recently published under the title, All Loves Excelling. Near the end he asked,
Couldst thou (sinner) if thou hadst been allowed, thyself express what thou wouldst have expressed, the greatness of the love thou wantest, with words that could have suited thee better? (Knowledge, 37)
In other words, could you have imagined, let alone asked for, a better love than Christ’s? Satan hates for you to know this goodness. He hates for us to come to the Lord’s Table set with the symbols of Christ’s love spent for us, the body and the blood of Jesus. Christian, remember His death on the cross, His burial, and His resurrection three days later. Abide in His love. Come, eat and drink it represented in this communion meal. It fills you with all God’s fullness.
Even though we do the same thing around the same time in our service every Sunday morning, those who benefit most from our time of confession are probably those who are most surprised. I’m not talking about visitors. In one sense those of us who participate regularly should be more surprised each successive week that we have more sin to confess.
We are Calvinists so we have a hold on the petal of total depravity, even the one-pointers. We believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We believe that even when God regenerates us He doesn’t sanctify away all our sinful practice instantly but progressively. We believe that a Christian who says that he has no sin makes God a liar. So how can I say that there is a place for surprise when we come to see our sin?
We are surprised because we also believe the gospel. We believe that God saves sinners and that means we are dead to sin–in reality. Believing the gospel means that we’ve been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life–right now. Believing means that God has granted to us all things pertaining to life and godliness–for the present. Believing means that God set the seal of His Spirit on us to make us more holy–before heaven.
We are likely to be surprised by an exhortation that exposes another sin to confess because we believe that the gospel has taken root in our lives. Our optimism, our hope in the gospel, motivates better confession.
G.K. Chesterton observed that only optimists reform anything. Cynics and pessimists see evil and, well, they knew it would be. Optimists are still startled by injustice. “What?! That’s not right! That doesn’t belong!” Anyone can rail against unrighteousness. Only a man with gospel hope will want better.
The pessimist resents evil solely because it is a grievance. The optimist resents it also, because it is an anomaly; a contradiction to his conception of the course of things. (All Things Considered, 53).
We are not naive about sin, and certainly not sentimental towards it. We acknowledge that we are sinners being saved but we also acknowledge that the power of gospel overcomes the power of our sin. God calls us to mortify our sins, put them to death. He also calls us to believe that sin will in fact be put to death and stay dead, even as we confess it and repent.
What would our lives be like without the gospel? Only those who believe the gospel could come close to answering the question because those without the gospel live as self-deceiving slaves to darkness. They don’t know what they’re missing. Believing the gospel puts us in a better position to try not to miss all that it gives us.
Without the gospel we would be “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). We would have no idea where we came from or for what purpose we exist. We would have no peace, isolated from blessing in Christ and from righteous community. We would be gathering and collecting only to give to others. We would be busy dying for no good reason.
With the gospel we have the first-fruits of eternal life, peace with God and participation in His Triune joy. With the gospel we care about fellow image-bearers who hurt in soul and body. We know that it’s right to care for the health of the sick without filching the work of the well to pay for it. With the gospel we know why governments go crazy, why education and vocation matter forever, why dinner around the table with your family won’t burn. With the gospel we can look around and enjoy all the fruit of the Vine (John 15:5).
It is an endless task to answer what our lives would be like without the gospel. The Father sent His Son to die and rise and change everything with Him. We cannot hold all the fruit of His work in our hands but we can be thankful that we can’t. We will never complete our thank you note to God but, as we eat and drink the symbols of our life together in gratitude, He is glorified.
At our Life to Life leaders’ meeting last Wednesday we discussed how discussions are going at our different Life to Life groups. In order to know how they are going it’s necessary to know where they are supposed to be going, and that leads me to make a couple comments.
The goal of Life to Life groups is not transparency, though we cannot get to the goal without it. What is “transparency”? Let’s say that transparency is speaking and behaving in a way that matches reality. Transparency hates lying and posing. Transparency requires honesty and refuses to hide. No man redeems himself by keeping his sin in the shade regardless of what our reticence says otherwise.
One stock objection to being transparent in a group setting is that if you tell the truth about your problems, your problems might hear you. By that I mean, if you are having a hard time with your spouse or your kids or your co-leader, transparency will run them over in the disrespect bus.
But before we can answer that concern, we should remember what the goal of the meeting is in the first place. The goal is not transparency, the goal is obedience. And whose obedience? There’s the bus we really need to catch.
We don’t meet together at L2L (or elsewhere) to hear about the sin of your neighbor and pow-wow about how we might get him to change, the big jerk. He may really have problems that need addressing, but what we want first is our own obedience. I may flutter my Kindness Cape around since I’m not criticizing others, but I’m still missing the point if I’m not confessing the mess in my heart.
That’s one reason why our time of confession every Lord’s day is so important. God does not want our transparency only, nor does He call us to confess the sin of our neighbor that’s making our lives so damn hard. He wants our obedience and He sees under every pose and blame and tight lip and lie. He also forgives every one who confesses and forsakes his sin; He’s faithful to do it.
Is it necessary for Christians to bear fruit? Are we required to love God and others, obey God, have joy in God, and witness for God? Yes, we are required, but we are not capable, not on our own. This is why the good news really is so good.
God does not get glory simply because He talks about transforming us and certainly not because He talks about us transforming ourselves. He goes ahead and transforms us. He commands that we obey Him and then, as Augustine prayed, God gives what He commands. He wants more fruit, much fruit, abiding fruit. But He does not put us on the table and say, “Grow roots.” He does not lift us up in the air and say, “Produce fruit!” He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
We know His commands and we know the first step is to believe in Him. Then He requires, He summons us, to remain in the vine. Christ doesn’t expect great works without giving great grace. He doesn’t wait until we are full to feed us. He doesn’t graft us in when we’ve produced our quota of fruit. He demands that we bear fruit by derivative. All of it flows out of our communion with Him.
Paul exhorted the Colossians, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6–7, ESV). We have been taught, we have received Christ, and so we are rooted in Him for a fruitful, thankful walk.
I have never met a runner convinced that he would race faster if only he could carry a heavier bag. Runners run better by dropping weight, not by picking it up, just as a Trans Am loaded down with a year’s worth of college accumulation doesn’t get better gas mileage. Switching illustration fields, rose bushes never trimmed never bloom as much as they could.
Often we ignore these realities in our souls. We stubbornly cling to beloved burdens and sin that makes running that much harder.
We pile on worldly mindsets and wonder why we can’t get up to spiritual speed. We defend every branch of interest we have, even the dead ends and judge the emptiness of our branches as a sign that spring just hasn’t arrived.
God does not accept or make excuses for our fruitlessness. He calls us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so that we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). He calls us “put off [our] old self, which belongs to [our] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). And “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). If God didn’t love us, then He would let us hold on to things that keep us from true life and more fruit. Let us not despise His correction but receive it for our good as sons.