Thursday, February 25, 2010

How big is God and how Small is Man?

For those of us that like to meditate on the greatness of mankind Isaiah 40:15-17 is sobering news. "Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. Lebanon would not suffice for fuel, nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness."

This text refers to nations not individuals. Take the United States, approximately 350 million souls. In God's eyes we are collectively "like a drop from a bucket." That is pretty insignificant. But the text goes further. We "are accounted as dust on the scales." Dust is irrelevant. It does not move scales up or down. 

But the coup de grace is in the last verse. "All the nations" combined (not just the United States) are "less than nothing and emptiness." It is hard to get smaller and less significant than "less than nothing and emptiness."  So much for the Olympic boast in the glory of man.

In light of these facts it behooves us to humble ourselves. It should amaze us that he lets us go on existing. "What is man that you consider him?" (Ps 8). The ESV Study Bible notes that “Astronomers now estimate...that there are more than 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and that there are 125 billion galaxies in the universe. The total number of stars is estimated at 10 to the 22nd power, or 10 billion trillions. Moreover, the God who created all of these, the Holy One of Israel, calls them all by name and ensures that “not one is missing.” 

Let us humble ourselves. Let us bow before God in worship praise. Truly, our God is an awesome God!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Money: Master or Servant?

Oscar Torres sent me a link to an article in the London Telegraph about an Austrian millionaire named Karl Rabeder (right) . He is selling his estate, worth about 3 million pounds (5 Million dollars), and giving the entire proceeds to charity. His motive? His money is making him miserable.

"For a long time I believed that more wealth and luxury automatically meant more happiness," he said. "I come from a very poor family where the rules were to work more to achieve more material things, and I applied this for many years.”

But over time, he had another, conflicting feeling.

"More and more I heard the words: 'Stop what you are doing now – all this luxury and consumerism – and start your real life'," he said. "I had the feeling I was working as a slave for things that I did not wish for or need.

I have the feeling that there are a lot of people doing the same thing."

However, for many years he said he was simply not "brave" enough to give up all the trappings of his comfortable existence. ”

When money is our master, when we are serving it, it is a god-substitute, and money is a cruel god. It makes the enjoyment of wealth impossible. (Eccl. 5:10) "He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity." It stirs up crippling fear of financial loss. We become anxious about getting more, willing to violate God's will to conserve or create wealth. It cripples conscience, ruins relationships, and promotes a host of other griefs.

"But...covetousness must not even by named amongst you...for you may be sure of this that everyone who is...covetousness (that is an idolater) has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph 5:3-5). Paul's words are a serious warning, one to which we should pay special attention.

Here are some signs that money has become a master not a servant.  
  • Anxiety about financial loss.
  • The unwillingness to give joyfully to God's work.
  • Measuring your value and self worth by your income or assets.
  • Lack of contentment. "Now there is great gain and godliness with contentment" (1 Tim 6:6).
  • Preoccupation with things: cars, homes, furniture, or vacations.
  • We obey the gods we worship. A sign that mammon is our god is the willingness to break or ignore God's will to serve that god. For example, failing to tithe, inordinate consumer debt, inability to live within a budget, etc.
On the other hand, there is great joy and happiness when money is our servant. We get to participate in the joy of giving. We experience the joy that comes with contentment. We experience God at work supplying our needs in unexpected ways. We get to live outside the rat race. Whatever our level of wealth we are able to enjoy what God has given.

Live in the Spirit. Make money a servant not a god, and you will not know the pain that Karl Rabeder experienced.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Just finished The Prideful Soul's Guide to Humility, by Jones and Fontenot. I have read four or five books on humility, and this is the best. It is an excellent guide for someone that wants to encourage humility and whither pride. This subject should matter greatly to you. Your conversion and your sanctification depend upon growth in humility. In fact, you will only become Christ-like to the degree that you first become humble.

As the author notes, “It [humility] is the fundamental of all fundamentals. It is what Andrew Murray called ‘the cardinal virtue’ and ‘the only root from which the graces can grow.’ It is the queen of all attitudes. It is the soul of discipleship. It is the one attitude of heart and mind that we must be most concerned about. It is the one quality, above all else, for which to pray.” (pg 11).

The author goes on, "Our biggest problem, however, is not found in admitting that we have pride.  Our biggest problem lies in taking it seriously." (pg 18). We consider adultery, fornication, theft, lying and a host of other sins more serious than pride. Yet, in God's eyes, pride is the great sin. The problem is that we don't see it that way. To us pride is a minor irritation.

This book is powerful medicine for our greatest disease. I can't reccomend it enough. It strength lies in its power to convict. The authors seem to understand pride thoroughly, and they consistently stab the sword of conviction deep into the reader's heart. It takes a thorough acquaintance with ones own heart to be able to do this.

Often the best books have the ugliest covers. This is no exception.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The measure of God's Goodness

Infinite Humility & Self Emptying
Some of Jesus' statements were especially useful as measures of our sin and his love.  Matthew 23:12 is an example. "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Whoever humbles himself will be exalted." This idea appears repeatedly throughout scripture.

To many this text is "fly-over territory." However, this is a mistake, for it is a principle of  universal, divine justice. Understanding it unveils the gospel.

Pride must be humbled, and humility must be exalted. In God's economy there are no exceptions to this principle. It is immutable, eternal, uncompromisable. That is one reason that Christ descended from infinite realms of glory to a squalid stable in Bethlehem. God was humbling him in our place.

You and I are proud. It is the universal root of sin. All disobedience expresses pride. It says, "my way is better than God's." Disobedience is a declaration of personal deity. But our pride appears in more subtle ways. It provokes self-righteousness, crtical speech, selfishness, and a host of other evils.

Because God is just this pride must be humbled. When one believes the Gospel their faith unites them with Christ and his humbling becomes ours. This should shake us; for his humbling was infinite. It is not measurable. His status before the incarnation was infinite. Any descent from infinity to a finity is an infinite distance. Therefore, his humbling for us was an infinite humbling. The babe in the manger shows us Infinity reduced to finiteness.

This truth is the measure of our sin. If it took an infinite humbling to atone for our pride then our pride must be infinitely serious in God's sight.

It is also the measure of God's love. What kind of love is willing to descend an infinite distance to save infinitely odious creatures? Only an infinite love descends like this, a love that Paul writes, "surpasses understanding" (Eph 3:19).

It is also the measure of our hope. Because justice demands that the humble be exalted, God the Father exalted his Son. He raised him from the grave and seated him at his right hand. This is Good News. Because we are united with him by faith his exaltation becomes our exaltation. God so loved the world that he has made a way for proud sinners to get the exaltation that Christ's infinite humility deserves.

How should we respond? Pursure humilty. Hate pride. Thank God for the gospel. Revel in the unmerited grace of God. Delight in his love for the unworthy!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How the Gospel Changes Vocation

All lawful secular vocations are sacred. The recovery of the gospel has also meant the recovery of the doctrine of vocation.

When we hear the word “vocation” we usually think secular work. We hear the expressions like “vocational training,” “Vocational Rehabilitation” or “Vocational Counseling” and we think—secular employment. However, up until recent decades vocation was a religious word. Vocation comes from the Latin word, “vocare.” It means “To be summoned.” The One summoning or calling us is God.

Before the Reformation, in the 16th century, the term “vocation” referred strictly to a religious calling, i.e. monk, priest, or nun. Before 1517 only the religious had vocations. That was because the church did not understand how to apply the gospel. They believed that Jesus died for sinners, but they assumed that people appropriated the saving benefits of Christ’s death by working, by earning their salvation.

This belief motivated Martin Luther to join the order of the Augustinian Hermits. Luther felt his sin poignantly. He was studying law, but he was deeply worried about going to Hell. One day, while journeying to a distant city, he got caught in a thunder storm. A bolt of lightning struck the earth next to him. He cried out, “Save me St. Anne, and I shall become a monk.” Having survived the lightning, he realized that he had to make good on his vow. Much to his father’s chagrin, he immediately abandoned law and entered into a Catholic order of Priests called the Augustinian order of Hermits—an order of monks that led an especially severe and austere existence. They were the 16th century marines of the spiritual life. Luther wanted to go to Heaven. He assumed he had to merit eternal life. Monastery life was the best way to assure this goal.

Because the gospel was lost, most people shared Luther's assumption, and it had an unintended effect. It divided work into two classes—sacred and secular. The lower class was the secular, anything non-religious, i.e. lawyer, miner, baker, housewife, or mayor. Since these jobs did not advance your chances of eternal life, i.e. they did not give you “merit” with God, they were of lesser importance. In fact, if they stirred up greed or selfish ambition they might actually impede ones chances of eternal life.

However, there was a higher level, the sacred calling, and only to this did the term “vocation” apply. Vocation was a call to full time “religious” life, a call to be a priest, a monk, or a nun. It was higher because , if one worked to get into Heaven, a calling to the religious life enhanced ones chance of salvation—of becoming good enough to get in to Heaven.

The recovery of the gospel, during the Reformation destroyed this sacred-secular dichotomy. When the Reformers realized that no one gets into heaven by working, that it is a free gift of grace given to all who believe, then the advantage of the religious life disappeared. Suddenly the lawyer, the miner, the baker, the housewife, and the prince were equally close to God. They were just as confident of salvation as the person in the religious life. Salvation belonged to those who believed, not those who worked. This had radical implications for the way we see vocation.

For example, William Tyndale (1494-1536) said that if we look externally "there is difference [between] washing of dishes and preaching of the word of God; but as touching to please God; none at all." William Perkins (1558-1602) agreed: "The action of a shepherd in keeping sheep…is as good a work before God as is the action of a judge in giving sentence, or a magistrate in ruling, or a minister in preaching.” (Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints)

Therefore, because of the Reformation, all legitimate work became sacred. All service to humanity became a sacred calling. All moral work was a call to serve.

In his book Vocation, Douglas Schuurman writes, “God’s callings also relate to human needs, whether those needs are in the church or beyond it. When a Christian perceives a genuine human need and has the abilities needed for attending to it, that need becomes a spark of God’s calling to him. To the extent that the duties of one’s many places of responsibility also contribute to meeting human needs, those duties also are God’s callings.”

We Protestant’s are not exempt from the sacred/secular dichotomy. For many of us the "sacred work" is the call to be a foreign missionary. The “really committed” are missionaries overseas. Those who stay at home are second rate. They have compromised God’s greater call. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

How do we know this? The gospel frees us to serve God with joy in the secular realm. All lawful secular work is a sacred calling.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Sinfulness of Sin

“The Biblical gospel asserts…that the self is twisted, that it is maladjusted in its relationship to God and others, that it is full of deceit and rationalizations, that it is lawless, that it is in rebellion, and indeed one must die to self in order to live.” —David F. Wells

“For the Christian the self is the problem…Understanding the problem involves an awareness of sin, specially the sin of pride; Correcting this condition involves such unactualized states as contrition and repentance, humility, obedience, and trust in God.”—Paul Vitz

No one can have a humbling ministry until they come to grips with the biblical doctrine of sin. I recently overheard a Christian say, “No matter how badly you think of yourself, no matter how guilty you feel, no matter how deep your sense of moral bankruptcy and failure, you have never seen the depth of your sin sufficiently. It is always worse than you think.” My friend must have read Dr. Plumer. One hundred and fifty years ago he wrote; “The truth is, no man ever thought himself a greater sinner before God than he really was. Nor was any man ever more distressed at his sins than he had just cause to be.”

After all is said and done, all defective views of sin can be traced to unbelief or ignorance. We just don’t believe the Bible, or we don’t know what it says. “In all unbelief there are these two things,” noted Horatius Bonar (1808-89), “a good opinion of one’s self, and a bad opinion of God…It takes a great deal to destroy a man’s good opinion of himself; and even after he has lost his good opinion of his works, he retains his good opinion of his heart; and even after he has lost that, he holds fast his good opinion of his religious duties, by means of which he hopes to make up for evil works and a bad heart.”

Thanks be to God. The cross of Christ is the remedy manward. It destroys our good opinion of ourself. It is also the remedy Godward. Despite our sin and fallness, it provides peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We love God to the degree that we see our sinfulness as he sees it.