Monthly Archives: June 2011

Psalm 2: True blessing

In Psalm 1, we see what the life of a blessed man looks like. In Psalm 2, we learn who the blessed are:

Blessed are all who take refuge in [the Son] (v. 12)

Psalm 2 opens with the nations and rulers and kings of the world conspiring against ‘the Lord and his Anointed’. They are plotting to break apart the bonds between the Lord and his Anointed, and cast off their own obligations to both.

This is a fearful thought. If the powers of this world gathered together under one roof tonight and made designs to destroy my life, no place I could flee to would be safe. But in the face of such opposition, God laughs. He looks at mighty rulers and powerful kings and sees nothing but ants that are easily crushed. He answers them by saying,

“I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

God has issued forth a decree proclaiming the Anointed One as his established king. And this king is special. He is God’s Son, and he has promised to place everything in this world under his Son’s authority. His rule will be of such power and completeness that the nations are described as pieces of pottery, easily broken.

The Psalmist wrote in the days of the kings of Israel. Yet the description of the king above cannot apply to even the greatest of kings Israel had seen. Solomon, who ruled over the glory days of Israel, could not claim the ends of the earth as his possession. His kingdom had borders which he had to defend, and he did so in part by making marriage alliances with other kings, which ultimately led to his downfall. Not the kind of king you would describe as dashing the nations in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

The psalm would only find its true fulfillment centuries later with the coming of Jesus, the true Son of God. Man would do their best to sunder the bonds between the Father and Son, putting Jesus to death on a cross. They would mock the kingship of Jesus, crowning him with a twisted loop of thorns. Yet three days later, God would raise his Son from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ honour and establishing his kingship and his kingdom forever. The plots of man and the devil were brought to utter ruin at the cross.

Therefore, if this psalm finds its true fulfillment in Jesus, then so does the advice of the psalmist. Be wise, he warns. Serve the Lord with fear. Kiss the Son. That last one sounds odd in our day and age, but the parallel command makes more sense – take refuge in the Son.

What are we taking refuge from exactly? Nothing more than the anger and wrath of God against all who plotted against his Anointed One and tried to overthrow his rule. None of humanity is exempt. But there is a hiding place, a safe refuge. At the cross, Jesus took on the wrath of God in our place and satisfied it. All who live under his rule will never have to fear such wrath again. This is the essence of true blessing.

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Helping the next generation to own their faith

I’m 22. And I have a growing fear that my generation, and the generation after me, is living on borrowed faith.

I grew up in a Christian household. My parents have always gone to church, and are active members of the church, serving in various capacities. However, being first generation Christians, they have no experience of what it is like to grow up in a Christian household and the unique struggles we face with the Christian faith.

This is not a slight on their parenting. On the contrary, they gave me their best, providing for my needs, meting out discipline when it was necessary, encouraging and opening up opportunities for me to grow and develop as a person, being patient and supportive when I failed, teaching me how to relate to others well, impressing on me the importance of being faithful in fulfilling our responsibilities, and loving the church intensely. I wouldn’t trade them for any other parents in the world, and am grateful that God has blessed me in such a unique way.

Yet there are always blind spots in any parenting. One of the unique dangers second-generation Christians tend to face is the possibility of living on borrowed faith for years without suffering the consequences. Growing up, I was unaware that I was living on borrowed faith. I went to church because my parents went to church. I participated in church programs because that was what they would expect of me. I always defined my Christian identity in terms of being a child of Christian parents. It was the culture and religion I had grown up in, and I saw no reason to abandon it.

But having no reason to abandon your Christian roots does not translate into having reasons for embracing the Christian faith as your own and doing so. There is a wide divide between the two that must be purposefully bridged, and this is a divide that many Christian parents unknowingly and unintentionally ignore to the peril of their children.

There is genuine peril because true Christians cannot live off borrowed faith. Spiritual capital cannot be transferred between individuals. As children, it is easy to imagine this possible while we remain under the shelter and protection of our parents. But the real world inevitably breaks in our lives. If we do not own our faith when this happens, we will desert the faith of our parents. That leads us down the path to an unthinkable destiny.

The reason that our desertion is certain is because there is only one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ himself. God has not instituted a second mediator, be it our family or friends, between Jesus and man. There is no need. If we do not embrace Jesus for ourselves and not for our parents’ sake, we do not embrace God. We will either see Jesus as our own treasure, or continue searching for riches that do not exist in this world. We will either acknowledge Jesus as our own Lord, or make counterfeit gods of other vain things like money and fame and spouses. God does not question us at the end of the day what our parents did with Jesus; he will ask what we personally did with Jesus.

Borrowed faith is no faith at all. God gives faith to individuals to enable them to come to him and enjoy a familial relationship with him. If our faith is not our own, it means that we have not been given faith to believe on Jesus and all that he has done for us. It means that we are still dead in our trespasses and sins.

As God does not give faith by lottery, but does so through the hearing of his Word, Christians bear a responsibility to the next generation. God has appointed us to the task of entrusting the truths of the Bible to a generation yet to hear of his works. Through the reading, teaching and preaching of the Bible, God reveals himself to the hearts and minds of those who have ears to listen.

Our church programs and ministries exist for the sake of entrusting the truths of the Bible to the next generation. In particular, we need to tell the next generation of Jesus and his work and why it matters. But these truths are shifting from the center of the Christian faith to the periphery. The connections between the cross and Christian ministry and between the gospel and the transformed life are not being drawn clearly and explicitly. We are engaging the next generation to build structures but not teaching them to first lay the foundations.

This is an unsurprising oversight. Foundations are crucial but hidden. And what is hidden is often forgotten. But when the older generation moves on and the work falls to the newer generation, they will only know how to erect buildings without foundations. They will be like the foolish man who built his house on the sand, rather than the wise man who dug down deep and built his house on the rock. Their work will be destroyed and their faith will be shipwrecked, if it was ever theirs to begin with.

I once read some wise words from D.A. Carson, and though it lengthens this post considerably, I include them here because we need to hear a clear warning from an experienced and seasoned Christian scholar and pastor:

If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel.

If the gospel—even when you are orthodox—becomes something which you primarily assume, but what you are excited about is what you are doing in some sort of social reconstruction, you will be teaching the people that you influence that the gospel really isn’t all that important. You won’t be saying that—you won’t even mean that—but that’s what you will be teaching. And then you are only half a generation away from losing the gospel.

Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.

If we do not let the gospel become the root and framework and emphasis of all that we do, we are half a generation from losing it altogether. Where the gospel is lost, faith will not be given. Where faith is not given, Jesus is not trusted and embraced and treasured for all he is. Though we did not intend or set out to do so, we have unavoidably crippled, and possibly condemned, an entire generation.

My generation and the one after me will be present in our churches for a season. They will participate in the programs, join the youth group and even serve in some of the church ministries. But if we do not use this season to help them own their faith, we neglect the one thing they need most: the gospel spoken and explained and lived out with conviction, consistency, and competency.

They need someone to sit down with them to explain what Christians believe, who Jesus is, and why he matters most.

They need someone who will challenge them to answer the call of Jesus and spend their lives for the sake of his name.

They need someone who will help them understand how the truths of the gospel transform our lives, and model such living.

They need someone to plant their feet on the solid ground of the gospel, so that they are able to stand, and stand firm, when the struggles of life press in on them.

They need someone to help them learn to navigate through this world with gospel wisdom, so that they can make wise and holy choices that bring glory to God.

They need someone who will unceasingly pray for them, that God would be pleased to give them an undivided heart that desires the name and fame of Jesus above everything else.

And having ownership of their faith, they need someone who will call them to go and do likewise for the next generation.

Will we be that someone?

Psalm 1: Who planted the tree there?

“Blessed is the man…”

We all want to be blessed. And Psalm 1 appears at first glance to be a recipe to earn blessing. A list of dos and don’ts. Don’t walk in the counsel of the wicked. Don’t stand in the way of sinners. Don’t sit in the seat of mockers. Do delight in the law of God. Do meditate on it day and night. Then you’ll be like a well-nourished and fruitful tree, prospering in everything you do.

Yet the overwhelming testimony of the Bible is that no one is righteous, except God. All have sinned. All fall short. We are born wicked, destined to perish. Even our best works are as filthy rags. We cannot earn God’s blessing. We cannot earn our own righteousness. Instead, we are all under the wrath of God. How then does Psalm 1 fit into this larger picture?

A closer reading shows that we draw causal relationships too easily. The Psalmist does not say that a man who does all these things will be blessed. Rather, it is the blessed man who can do all these things. The blessing precedes the doing. More accurately, the blessing motivates the doing (or not doing).

What is this blessing? As Paul puts it, it is every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). And it comes to us on the account of Jesus. United to him in his death and resurrection, our sins are paid for and his righteousness is credited to us. When God the Father looks at us, he sees us as his beloved children, not as objects of wrath. The blessed man knows that he has been adopted into the family of God, not because of anything he has done or will do, but because of everything that Jesus accomplished on his behalf.

Being an undeserving recipient of such rich blessings can only yield the fruit of loving and joyful obedience to the one who has richly blessed us. The blessed man does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, because he knows Christ crucified, the wisdom of God, far surpasses every other counsel. He does not stand in the way of sinners, because he knows the one that stood in the place of sinners like him, so that we might stand in the congregation of the righteous. And he will not even come close to sitting in the seat of mockers, because he will not mock the God who died to save him, and now risen to life sits enthroned in heaven above.

Or to use the Psalmist’s illustration, the blessed man is like a tree with leaves that do not wither and which yields its fruit in season. It is a healthy and fruitful tree because it is planted by streams of water. Trees clearly don’t plant themselves. So who planted the tree there? God did.

Like believing in exercise

Christians believe in lots of things.

We believe that the Bible is the very Word of God, without error in the original writings and is sufficient for all matters of faith and conduct.

We believe in the Trinity – that we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons, nor dividing their essence. For the person of the Father is a distinct person, the person of the Son is another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another. But the divinity of the Father, Sin and Holy Spirit is one, their glory equal, their majesty coeternal.

We believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. We believe that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world, and was buried. On the third day he rose bodily from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. We believe that he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, and his work of regeneration, conviction, sealing and sanctification.

We believe in the forgiveness of sins, in our justification by faith alone by grace alone, in our adoption, in the resurrection of the body and in the life everlasting.

We believe that the church displays God’s glory in redeeming at great cost a people for himself. As the church, we are to help each other grow up to become like Jesus and to make disciples of all nations. God accomplishes this through means like the preaching and teaching of the Word, prayer, the sacraments, church discipline, leaders, accountability, mutual encouragement, holy living, ministries of mercy, evangelism, missions and discipleship.

In short, we believe in lots of things.

There are other things we believe in as well. Like exercise. We believe it’s good for us, physically, mentally and spiritually. We believe the present pain of exercise always leads to greater future gain. We believe that we ought to do it regularly, and that we should actively schedule it into our busy lives.

Yet despite our strong beliefs about exercise, most of us never get round to exercising. Our believing in the truths of the Christian faith should never become like believing in exercise.

Don’t Babble in Prayer

Matthew 6:7-9
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this…

Don’t babble in prayer
I do not wish to judge the sincerity of prayers. Yet I cannot deny that I hear a lot of empty phrases in prayers. It’s a bad habit Christians have picked up from other Christians. It can go something like this: “Father God, we come before you, Lord, to praise your name Lord God and Jesus we want to thank you Lord for being faithful to us God. Lord Jesus, we ask that God you continue to watch over us Lord and help us in our time of need, Father.” There is also the example of ‘power phrases’ in prayer used by certain Charismatics.

Jesus reminds us that we should not heap up empty phrases in prayer – or as the NIV translates it more vividly, “babble like the pagans”. We should not carelessly insert the Lord’s name into our prayers like a comma. That would be akin to taking the Lord’s name in vain, which the Third Commandment prohibits. We do not talk like that to our friends, using their name at every turn, as it would annoy them to no end; why should we treat God with less respect? A sincere heart does count for something, but I think we undercut this sincerity when we do not give God the proper reverence by mouthing his name carelessly.

The root of babbling
Jesus doesn’t just stop there. He goes deeper. He knows that babbling in prayer is often an indicator of a heart that ‘thinks it will be heard for its many words’. He understands that he must get to the sinful root of babbling and cut it out of our hearts with gospel promises if we are to learn to pray and relate to God properly.

Thus he reminds us that God the Father knows what we need before we ask him. We should not falsely conclude from this that we do not need to pray. Jesus teaches in Matthew 7 that we need to ask if we wish to receive. God has designed prayer to be the means by which he blesses us with what we need. Nor should we falsely conclude that we should not repeatedly ask for things in prayer. Jesus goes on to offer the example of the Lord’s prayer, which was to be prayed daily. The warning is not against persistent asking and repeated requests but against meaningless babble and empty phrases.

What we should conclude is that empty phrases and babbling are pointless in prayer, since God is not any more compelled by them to answer us. The only compulsion that rests on him is the compulsion of a Father’s love towards his children. The magnitude of his love as displayed through the death of Jesus should be sufficient assurance that our prayers are heard. To compel him by other means is to cast doubt on his  generous love towards us.

Should I take notes during the sermon?

Most of the people I go to church with in KL, or have gone with in the UK, are the type to take notes during the sermon. I don’t do this, and I’m not a keen advocate of note-taking either. So my stance on this is clearly a little controversial in the circles I find myself in. This question was mainly motivated by a  Jonathan Edwards quote I recently came across:

“The main benefit that is obtained by preaching is by impression made upon the mind in the time of it, and not by the effect that arises afterwards by a remembrance of what was delivered.”

My experience tells me that this is true. I find it hard to remember any sermon older than a month, and my memory is considered to be better than most. I know Christians who can barely recall in detail sermons from the previous Sunday, let alone two Sundays ago. This is not a slight on them. That would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

The fact is that the sermon (or monologue format) is a rather ineffective structure for rich learning and retaining new knowledge. Remembering what the preacher said is an inherently difficult task. We already see this fact being played out in the growing adoption of interactive learning methods in education. So, if sermons are an ineffective instrument of learning, then why retain them in our church liturgies?

The quote from Jonathan Edwards answers this question very well. The reason why the sermon has endured since the inception of the church is that biblical preaching has never been primarily about education, such that listeners can remember what was said after. Rather the main benefit to listeners is delivered in the moment when the preacher is preaching.

When someone gets up into the pulpit and faithfully preaches from the Bible, he is a messenger of God. More than that, he is an ambassador. He is not merely carrying a message – his very words carry the authority of God. God Himself is speaking, and all must listen and respond. God has promised that where his Word is preached, his Spirit will be at work convicting hearts of their sin, the righteousness of his Son and the judgment that awaits this world. In this sense, preaching is about communicating a real sense of God to the listeners, eliciting the kind of response we see in Acts 2:37: “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Another illustration might help to clarify what I mean. When you walk into a dark room and turn on the light, the focus always shifts from the light onto everything you see by the light. The same applies to preaching. When God’s Word is spoken and explained, it is like a light being shone on our hearts. While our attention will initially be divided between the light and everything we see by this light, our focus must eventually shift from the former to the latter. By this light, we see the sin in our hearts that offend him and the Saviour he has provided, being moved to repentance and faith accordingly. This conviction can only take place as the Word is actively listened to and received.

What does this mean for note-taking during the sermon? The key principle is that there is no power in reading our sermon notes. The power lies in the reading, the speaking, and the listening to of God’s Word. The power of the Spirit is tied up with the presence of the Word. If your sermon notes help you to read your Bible with more clarity and understanding, then they are being used properly. If they replace your Bible reading, then they are useless.

Yet I am still not keen on encouraging note-taking during the sermon, even though they can be put to good use after that. I think the very act of note-taking feeds the fallacy that preaching is about feeding the mind. To the contrary, effective preaching must aim through the mind at the heart. The Bible shows us that our sin problem does not lie in the ignorance of our minds (as Muslims believe), but goes deeper into the rebellion of our hearts. So the sermon cannot be purely educational; it must also be convicting. (Although we must remember that the work of conviction can only be done by the Spirit and not the preacher, which is why preaching must be saturated with prayer and faithfulness to the Word of God.)

Having established that effective preaching aims at the heart, it remains useless for the preacher to preach in the right manner if we do not listen in the right manner. I know from experience that note-taking shuts down the critical faculty of the mind – if you disagree, attend a university lecture. This is the part of our mind that carefully considers how God’s Word affects our lives. This is the channel that links our minds to our hearts, and to shut it down would be a great loss to listeners. If the sermon is an arrow aimed at our heart, then note-taking is putting 40 inches of solid steel in between.

On a separate but related note, I think if churches want listeners to remember the content of a sermon, this aim is most effectively achieved through song. Yes, I am a huge advocate of post-sermon singing of a good length that reinforces the sermon. This would be the equivalent of taking the arrow in your hands and slowly working it deeper. Our songs would need to be up to the task, possessing a richness and breadth of theology, with words set to memorable melodies. This is a daunting task.

However, if we truly hope to work lasting change in listeners, then they must listen to the Word of God again and again, and give listeners an opportunity to work through the text for themselves. This would require text-by-text expository preaching, biblical small groups, and trained leaders – an even more daunting task.

But these are topics for another day.