The Slow Miracle of the Lord’s Day

Whenever I get the opportunity to speak about worship in either a Sunday School series or an Inquirers class, I try to work in the following thought from Hart and Muether’s With Reverence and Awe:

“God’s intention was to bless his people through the constant and conscientious observation of the [Sabbath], week after week and year after year. Believers are sanctified through a lifetime of Sabbath observance. In other words, the Sabbath is designed to work slowly, quietly, seemingly imperceptively in reorienting believers’ appetites heavenward. It is not a quick fix, nor is it necessarily a spiritual high. It is an ‘outward and ordinary’ ordinance, part of the steady and healthy diet of the means of grace.”

In a world of quick fixes, easy steps, emotionalism, and intellectualism, Hart and Muether remind us of the slow and quiet work of the Spirit in congregational worship.

As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches in Q. 88:

Q. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

This reorienting perspective becomes an antidote for spiritual thrill-seeking and an assurance that the tried and true ways are still the best. Instead of looking for spiritual highs, we can rest in the surety of God’s promises—even when we do not feel like it. In addition, we are also kept from over intellectualizing worship as we recognize that worship is a spiritually formative process that reaches beyond our head and engages our heart and affections—especially over time.

As we consider corporate, congregational worship and its elements, can we approach it from the standpoint of submission because we know it is good for us rather than from the position of what we personally like? We submit to that type of discipline in exercise, eating, and learning new skills. The same applies to the on-going discipling (discipline) of Lord’s Day worship. It takes time to see results of an exercise regimen, and there are various times of success and plateaus but by looking back from where we have come, we see the trajectory of better fitness and health. The same is true with the discipline of worship and the trajectory of spiritual fitness and health.

Lord’s Day worship imperceptively reorients our affections towards heaven and away from earthly concerns, towards the eternal rather than those things that are passing away, to the way of the cross instead of our own comfort. To paraphrase my pastor, God did not redeem us by the blood of His Son in order for us to sit comfortably in our pew every week. The on-going shaping of the Sabbath equips, prepares, challenges, and changes us.

Have patience in the work of Sabbath observance—in your own heart and in the response of the congregation. The Spirit is at work in these outward and ordinary means.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Kingdom Manifesto (Part 1)

In an increasingly politicized age, we have become used to political slogans designed to encapsulate the heart of a candidate’s message–everything from “Change We Can Believe In” (2008) to “Make America Great Again” (2016). In the high politicization of American culture, there is a danger that the church begins to operate by similar standards and slogans. We have seen trends from the “seeker-sensitive” to “missional” churches, from the Convergence Movement to Christian Family movement.

The obvious problem with these movements is that they focus, not only upon one aspect of Christian practice or theology (though not all of them do even that!); but, that, all too often, they focus upon an external form in order to bring about internal change. Yet, when our Lord came proclaiming the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), he did not proclaim movements or trends, far less external forms to mark out members of his kingdom. Far from it; if there is a manifesto of kingdom life, it is found in graces wrought in individuals by the Holy Spirit. This manifesto–a Christian manifesto, a Kingdom manifesto–is called the Beatitudes.

Nothing could be further from the political or religious “sloganeering” or “movement-based” Christianity than the Beatitudes. Of all the subjects our Lord led with in the opening of his ministry, Christian and Kingdom graces where the highlight. That ought to tell us something about the nature of our faith, the nature of Christ’s Kingdom and the kind of mentality that should be at the forefront of our minds.

First, we witness that Christianity and the Kingdom of Christ is for people with broken and poor spirits. This is the lead grace / trait that Christ wishes to communicate to his disciples and the church. Contrary to the celebrity-driven culture of the world and increasingly of the church, those great in the kingdom are characterized by poverty of spirit. What does our Lord mean when he speaks in this way?

Our Lord does not here speak sociologically or monetarily; rather, he speaks theologically. He is speaking of a spiritual reality in the heart of men and women. Often the physical poverty or illness of gospel characters is used to illustrate a spiritual reality: as it is physically–i.e. broken, needy, without resource or ability to help self–so are we spiritually. Each of us is natively broken, needy, without resource or ability to extricate ourselves from the pollution, consequence and curse of sin. To be poor in spirit is to have been weighed in the spiritual balance and been found wanting. It is to be painfully aware of our own sin, our own unworthiness before a holy and terrible God.

Yet the poverty of spirit, of which Christ speaks, is not simply a negative idea: for kingdom citizens poverty of spirit is a grace-wrought blessing. Let Scripture speak for itself in Luke 18:13 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted”. The tax collector knew who and what he was before God – a sin-wracked rebel worthy of condemnation, yet he still prayed for mercy!

Therein is the key to the kingdom of Christ! When the Spirit works in the heart of person to draw them unto the Father through Christ, he does not work pride, self-sufficiency, thoughtlessness and self-righteousness. No he works a poverty of spirit which while it knows its own inherent, deep unworthiness also knows the grace and mercy of God. The sinner saved by grace can simultaneously weep tears of sorrow and joy: sorrow over gross sin and neglect of God’s glory and joy in being forgiven. Such are kingdom people. Such are Christian. Such go down to their houses justified!

We must take great care that we do not lose sight of Christ’s manifesto for Kingdom life, and particularly where it starts. If we do lose sight of it, we will replace and supplant Kingdom, Spirit-wrought graces with worldly ideas of greatness. It is not the great of the world that are exalted, but the spiritually lowly. Do not despise the poor in spirit in the church. Do not think they are of little use because they do not trumpet their own so-called graces, abilities knowledge. Perhaps God might surprise us if we gave more opportunities to those who wait for others to put them forward for service, after all, “a man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great.” (Prov. 18:16)

Moreover, what great blessing awaits to such as belongs the kingdom of heaven. For the world and even for the religious formalist, the warning of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, should ring in our ears “Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2). But for the one in whom the Spirit has wrought the grace of poverty of spirit, in whom the Spirit has revealed inherent holiness of God, in whom the Spirit has worked a conviction of sin and to whom the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ has been shed, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

If we are to stand under a banner, have a slogan or motto under which we may stand, let it at least in some way incorporate the idea “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.”

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Writing to Strangers for the Savior

Why do we write? Perhaps more precisely, For whom do we write? This question might be easier to answer for preachers putting pen to paper on a weekly basis: they write for God himself, to proclaim the truth, to expand the kingdom by delivering God’s Word unvarnished to a world in the throes of deception. But for those of us outside of the pulpit, the answer isn’t always so obvious. If it is, it doesn’t stay long at the forefront of our mind.

This is a reminder: If you are a Christian writer, you write for the Son of God. Jesus is your boss. What does that mean? At first glance, it might pose a problem to the writing industry: Jesus never put quill to parchment. The Word never inscribed his words on a physical surface, save his tracings in the dirt before an angry mob (John 8)—right?

In one sense, this may be true. But in another sense, it’s misleading. What is writing, after all? Writing, in a broad sense, is merely marking the world with your presence. It is a system of symbolized communication that externalizes our thoughts and emotions, inscribing them on a service, or pixelating them on a computer screen. Writing draws the inside to the outside; it places thought, sentiment, and argument on a canvas to be viewed by the wider world. And it tells the world that we are here.

This concept should not be so foreign to us, for the triune God everywhere tells us that he is here. He has condescended to accommodate us with revelation, in nature and Scripture. That revelation always and everywhere utters the divine claim: God is here. Just think of Psalm 19:1–4:

The heavens declare the glory of God,and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. 

God reveals himself in a way that makes his presence inescapable. All of creation, it seems, cannot be muted in its witness to the ever-present God.

But this ever-present God is also omnipotent. He has revealed to his creatures what they can receive in a manner in which they can receive it. In theological terms, we say that he has accommodated us. And his most profound accommodation was not some part of nature, or even the words of Scripture, but his own Son come in the flesh: the eternal Word spoken to us and for us. And this is related to the concept of writing.

The incarnation is, in a sense, divine writing on the canvas of human history. In Jesus, God does not just mark his presence in the world; rather, he is fully present. Jesus is the flesh-and-blood manifestation of God’s presence. As Isaiah put it, he is Immanuel: the with-us God. Let me put it differently. If the eternal Son of God is the spoken Word of the Father (John 1:1), uttered in the power of the Holy Spirit, then Jesus Christ might be thought of as the written Word of God, infused with the life-giving Spirit as he walked through the Mediterranean world. And it is precisely at this point (the incarnation) that Christian writers need to pay close attention.

The craft of writing is a call to accommodate. When God wrote Jesus Christ into time, he also, as it turns out, gave us a paradigm for our own written communication. A vital part of writing as a craft lies in a sense of accommodation, a sense of drawing near to meet the needs of readers, to give them what they need in the manner in which they need it.

What’s more, the writer accommodates and serves not just readers with whom he is familiar, but strangers. And in a far greater sense, Jesus was also a servant to strangers. Though Jesus did help and serve those who were closest to him with unparalleled humility (cf. John 13:1–17), a majority of those whom he healed and ministered to were not his personal friends or acquaintances. They were blind commoners (Mark 8:22–25), wandering lepers (Matt. 8:1–4), imperial servants (Matt. 8:5–13), ailing women (Luke 8:43–48), and a host of other “nameless” persons. They were strangers who had no idea that the Son of God would cross paths with them. Though God knew every detail of these people’s lives—including when and where they would encounter his Son—they knew little of him. They were, in the fullest sense of the word, beneficiaries. Without any foresight, they received the written Word of the Father in the power of the Holy Ghost. This was the norm, not the exception. Jesus truly was the greatest servant to strangers.

Christian writers should bear this in mind for the obvious reason that Paul tells us we are to be conformed to Christ’s image (Rom 8:29). That image is, among other things, an image of servitude. Christ was a servant to strangers. In an analogous sense, Christian writers should be servants to strangers as well.

Now, for most writers this is nothing novel. Even minimally experienced authors know that most of their readers will be those whom they have never met. We type words and send them off to the vast market of communication, now largely on the web, but still in the print publications that circulate within our various theological circles. People whom you have never known will see how you have marked the world with your presence. They will gain access to your thoughts and perhaps see something of your heart, despite the fact that they know little or nothing about you. That has remarkable implications for the Christian writer. Here are just a few of them.

1. We should be open to correction and temperate in the defense of our ideas. The duty of the Christian writer is to enlighten understanding and foster constructive dialogue in a way that reflects Christ. Christ is the Word for us, and we live in an ever-healing dialogue with his Holy Spirit. Analogously, we should offer words for others leading to constructive conversation and self-reflection. The bit that is hard for us to swallow is the fact that this demands humiliation on our part. Christian writers are not high and mighty royalty who “descend” to speak with peon readers. Rather, Christian writers should expect and embrace their own rejection, scorn, criticism, and even mockery. The greatest difference between us and Christ is that many of the slings and arrows that come our way at the hands of strangers are well deserved. Christ’s humiliation and abjection was unjust; ours, on the contrary, is not. We are often guilty, even in subtle ways, of the crimes with which strangers (our readers) charge us.

This does not mean that we should recoil from writing, because God has a history of using the unholy to do what is holy. Our written words have a power endowed and upheld by God himself. Though we will often misuse words because of indwelling sin, God will still wield them to deliver hope, conviction, peace, and clarity for those he has prepared to receive them. And what’s more, God will also use the criticisms of strangers to move us along the road of sanctification. Criticism hurts, but God often uses it to heal. It’s just not the sort of medicine a Christian author looks forward to taking.

But we do not have a choice in this. There is simply no room for bravado and self-protection for writers conforming to the image of a crucified savior. I myself am immediately drawn to self-defense when someone critiques what I’ve written. “No, they’ve misunderstood me!” “They have different presuppositions. If they had mine, they’d know I was right.” “They haven’t read X or Y yet. Once they do, they’ll come to see the light.” Oh, the ego…One of the most important things I learned as a writer came from a small book by J. I. Packer entitled Weakness Is the Way. Late in the book, Packer confesses that he approaches every action in his life with a healthy sense of self-doubt. That is the way sinners saved by grace should approach everything. And if J. I. Packer can do that, then I think there’s more than enough room for developing writers to do so. We cannot enter the communicative marketplace with pride; we must enter, at every moment, with meekness.

2. Christian writers are called to be circumspect, for we do not know who will handle the words we craft. Engaging with strangers in conversation is enjoyable and entertaining precisely because we have no awareness of their history, their current struggles, their aspirations. They are walking question marks. But dialogue turns the question mark into a person; it unpacks, moment by moment, the concrete life and experience of another. And as we speak more with strangers, we learn what to be sensitive to, what kinds of humor they prefer, what sources of authority they hold.

We do not have this luxury of dialogue in writing. The writer has only one speaking part in the scene with the reader. That is all the more reason to get the part right. And getting the part “right” always means being careful in your reasoning, judgments, and evaluations. All of this is linked to word choice. When I write for counseling, I find myself avoiding the words “understand,” “realize,” and “consider”—not because there are any inherent faults in these words but because I know that readers of prose in the counseling genre are looking for solutions that apply to the heart, not just the head. Using words that connote cognition are not often effective in the sorts of messages that I have delivered.

Circumspection can be practiced in a variety of ways, not just through attention to word choice. In fact, circumspection can be practiced in a beautiful way within the body of Christ. Are you unsure as to whether your writing is eloquent, persuasive, coherent? Here’s an idea: let someone else read it, and then brace yourself for the first point: being open to correction.

Christian writers can always do a better job of relying on the body of Christ to craft their messages. We need other perspectives to show us how and where we can be more careful. Perspectives are always rooted in persons, so there is an element of community that should be vital to Christian authors. As I often tell students, “Good writing only happens in community.” That is not the most efficient way to write something, I’ll admit, but I believe it is the best way to serve strangers.

3. Christian authors have one primary audience: the Trinitarian God of Scripture. We all write for a secondary audience. Surely, we must account for that demographic before we start typing. But not many of us stop to think of the primary audience we have in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One thought that truly humbles me as an author came when I was ruminating on Revelation 4:10. The twenty-four elders here are pictured as casting their crowns before the throne of God. They give all of their glory and honor to him. I imagined what it would be like to stand before the throne of God at the end of my life and fill a box with everything I’ve ever written—purged of my own sin. Pushing that box toward the throne of the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit…It makes me feel small, but not in a negative sense. Feeling small is a good thing if you are, in fact, small. And every Christian author, no matter how prolific or poetic, is small in the presence of the Trinity.

And consider this: It is the Trinity who is Lord of all strangers. Writing prayerfully for the Triune God puts us in a better position to write for those whom he knows intimately. Our readers are strangers to us, but they are children to God.

I struggle to have confidence in myself as a writer. Perhaps you do too; so we continue to work hard to improve our eloquence and accuracy. But in the midst of that hard work, we must never forget that the greatest words we will ever write will be footnotes to the greatest Word that was ever written. That Word was a servant of strangers. Our words, at their very best, should reflect the accommodation and servitude that God has shown to us by writing his Son into redemptive history.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

When Revival Happens Elsewhere

Ian Murray describes biblical revival as consisting of “…a larger giving of God’s Spirit for the making known of Christ’s glory… a sense of God… not only in conviction of sin but equally in the bewildered amazement of Christians at the consciousness of the Lord who is in their midst.”1 Revival is not a constant reality in church history or in the life of any specific congregation, rather it is descriptive of those extraordinary times when the Lord is pleased to pour out a greater abundance of saving grace, there is a greater zeal for Kingdom priorities, and a vital spirituality characterizes the people of God.  It is a time of unique energy and vigor regarding gospel labors, and of unique blessing from the Lord in those pursuits.

All churches would love to see such things become a reality in their own midst.  Who would dare to say that they would not want the Lord to pour out such grace, to act in mighty ways to save sinners, to animate and revitalize His people in such ways described?  To be desirous of such blessing need not signal any depreciation of the normal plodding rhythms of ministry and the ordinary means of grace.  Indeed, Biblical revival is not a circumventing of normal ministry activities, it is a fresh and dynamic outpouring of grace through those very ordained means.

It is true that some people take revival and do unbiblical things with the concept.  In fact, much of Murray’s book is given over to distinguishing the difference between true God given revival and man’s foolish attempts to manufacture an outpouring of the Spirit- a pursuit he labels as revivalism.  To the historically minded, terms like revival sometimes evoke negative associations like Charles Finney’s anxious bench (a forerunner of the more modern altar call), and to the broader culture it often takes on a garish tent-huckster ethos, but we should never let other people’s errors define our practice.  None of these abuses are the fault of authentic revival.  And so quite aware of the dangers of a false and manufactured show of dramatic piety, even solidly Reformed men do say.” Lord, if it pleases you, send revival in our midst!”

But what about when you pray for revival and it comes… but to someone else? What are we to think of extraordinary measures of grace that God seems to pour out on others, while He seems pleased to withhold it from us? What am I to think of my neighbor’s revival?

To that question I offer three responses.

1. Avoid the temptation to adopt an elitist “narrow way” cynicism.

The present reality is that the Kingdom of God on earth is fractured into a multitude of church denominations, sects, movements, and coalitions.  At this stage in church history, no matter what segment of evangelical Christianity you call home, there are always more people outside your circle than inside of it.  No one group has the majority. What that means is that God is always doing more outside your narrow context than inside of it.  This conclusion is unavoidable, unless you want to say that only your own theological and ecclesiastic tradition is truly the place that God is pleased to work.

We’d rarely say that out loud, but I fear that sometimes we do think that way.  It comes out when we adopt a “narrow way” cynicism regarding revival in other denominations or movements.2 When we assign to apparent revival in other quarters a “broad way” condemnation because of the various ways they aren’t like us and therefore aren’t faithful to God’s Word and therefore couldn’t possibly be enjoying his blessing while we aren’t, don’t we betray the cynical elitism in our hearts?

Let’s not do that.  When our Christian brothers and sisters in other denominational contexts see real blessing from God on their labors, let’s not let our various disagreements with them over doctrine and practice prevent us from recognizing the true work of God in their midst.  Let’s not betray a belief that if God isn’t blessing us (or those most incredibly like us) whatever we are seeing must be a mere mirage of revival.  Being different from us doesn’t put another group beyond the reach of God’s blessing anymore than it puts them beyond the reach of His grace.  This of course doesn’t apply to those who hold to outright heretical views- I’m not talking about that.  But not all doctrinal disagreements are heretical.  There are a multitude of second tier issues which Christians will always disagree on.  Are we really ready to say that those who we disagree with over Baptism, or the exact role of the Law, or the precise nature of the Spiritual gifts or many other issues we rightly make distinctions over are so far gone that we can’t grant to them the genuine blessing and favor of the Lord?  Do we really want to say with our dismissive attitudes that we are the only ones who are deserving of His favor?

2. Avoid the temptation to adopt a shallow imitation of the latest new thing.

It is one thing to humble acknowledge the work of God in other contexts, it is a different thing to try and imitate whatever latest fads seem to be associated with that revival.  I use the word “fad” not necessarily to denigrate, but rather because it is an accurate description of evangelical patterns.  There is always some latest new thing.  Sometimes it has value, sometimes it doesn’t.  The test is God’s unchanging Word.

Sometimes two churches adopt identical strategies and have leadership that is practically interchangeable, but God grants revival to one while the other simply plods on without seeing extraordinary things in their midst.  Maybe they even see trial and struggle.  God is pleased to work when and where He chooses.  It’s not necessarily a stamp of divine approval or disapproval on either one.

It would be a mistake to assume that because God is pleased to work in diverse segments of the Kingdom, that the distinctions between those segments are irrelevant.  It would be a mistake to depreciate doctrinal precision on that count.  We can humbly recognize God at work in a context which our own Biblical convictions do not allow us to participate in.  Doing so does not make us compromisers; it merely keeps us chaste in our appraisals of our own achievements and humbly aware that we are never indispensable to the God who is actually the one building His Church.  Almost as bad as letting our doctrinal disagreements prevent us from thanking God for His work among other sorts of Christians would be to on that count dismiss or diminish the importance of taking those open and firm doctrinal stands.

3. Seek first the Kingdom of God.

Maybe the issue is that we spend too much time looking around horizontally, period.  Maybe we need to reevaluate the value of our horizontal evaluations. Maybe rather than correcting those outside our circles so often, we should be more concerned with working out actual gospel ministry in the doctrinal and traditional context to which we are committed.  Maybe we need to think about what we are truly seeking first, our own glory or that of the Lord?

This might sound preachy… but I am a preacher, so go figure.  To be clear, I’m preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  I want to be the sort of Christian who can rejoice whenever and wherever the gospel is proclaimed and people are being reached.  I don’t think I have to give up an inch of theological or doctrinal conviction to do that.  But I do think I have to give up some pride.

May God send us true revival, and if He sends it to others instead, may He send it all the more!

1. Ian Murray, Revival & Revivalism, p. 30.

2. “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14, ESV)

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Freely Forgiven, Freely Forgive

In the adult Sunday School class at our church, we’re studying Jesus’s parables. This week’s parable was “The ungrateful servant” from Matthew 18. The topic is, of course, forgiveness. The passage begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he had to forgive someone. In response, Jesus tells the parable of a servant who was forgiven an unimaginable debt and who immediately refused forgive the much smaller debt he was owed.

The meaning of the parable is found in verse 33, “Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?” Jesus’s answered Peter’s question by telling him that he should forgive his brother as freely as he himself had been forgiven by God. The passage then ends with a warning:

“And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35, NASB).

This warning coupled with the warnings that follow the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 have often troubled me. In Matthew 6:14-15 Jesus says:

“For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

How are we to understand the very real warnings that Jesus gives in his teaching on forgiveness? How do we reconcile them with the truth that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? Our salvation, which includes the forgiveness of our sins, does not and can not depend on us. This is good news. We know we can’t save ourselves or maintain our own salvation by our works. If it were up to us, none of us would be saved. So, the point of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 and 18 cannot be that we must earn our forgiveness by forgiving. If that is not the meaning of those passages, then what is?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism answer helped me better understand the passages and resolve the tension that I felt:

“In the fifth petition, which is, And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, we pray that   God, for Christ’s sake, would freely pardon all our sins; which we are the rather encouraged to  ask, because by his grace we are enabled from the heart to forgive others” (WSC, question 105).

The Westminster Larger Catechism goes into even greater detail and ends by teaching us to pray that God would,

“continue his favor and grace to us, pardon our daily failings, and fill us with peace and joy, in giving us daily more and more assurance of forgiveness; which we are the rather emboldened to ask, and encouraged to expect, when we have this testimony in ourselves, that we from the heart forgive others their offenses” (WLC, question 194).

According to both the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, the phrase “as we forgive others” is there to nurture our assurance. We are encouraged to ask God to forgive us and to believe that He has and will forgive us because we have the evidence of the Spirit working in us when we forgive others. This is such an encouragement!

Calvin, in his commentary on Matthew 6, comes to the same conclusion:

“The forgiveness, which we ask that God would give us, does not depend on the forgiveness which we grant to others: but the design of Christ was, to exhort us, in this manner, to forgive the offenses which have been committed against us, and at the same time, to give, as it were, the impression of his seal, to ratify the confidence in our own forgiveness…Christ did not intend to point out the cause, but only to remind us of the feelings which we ought to cherish towards brethren, when we desire to be reconciled to God (Calvin’s Commentary on Matthew 16:12).

Like all of the other fruit that God produces in believers, forgiveness is an evidence of our salvation. Because we have been justified and declared righteous before God, the Spirit is at work in us sanctifying us. As Philippians 2:13 says, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” The Spirit makes us willing and able to do obey, to do the good works God has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). And we can trust that He will complete the work He has started because He is faithful (Philippians 1:6).

We can see the evidences of our salvation and the forgiveness of our sins in our lives by seeing the fruit of forgiveness towards others. This is one of the proofs that the Spirit is working in us, because we know that on our own, we would never forgive others.

But what about the warnings in Matthew 6 and 18? Aren’t those real warnings? They surely are. Just as our forgiveness of others is evidence of our living faith, our unwillingness to forgive others is very well a demonstration of the fruit of a dead faith–that is, that we have no true, saving faith. If we have no saving faith, we have not been forgiven, and we do not extent forgiveness to others. Eternal destruction is the end result of that path.

As sinners, none of us is going to be as forgiving of others as we should be. We will all fail miserably at times. But even that failure is sin that God has forgiven. As believers, we have nothing to fear. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39), not even our failures to forgive. God has promised to forgive our sins and remove them “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Unlike us, He actually can and does forgive freely and fully.

Every believer struggles with different types and levels of indwelling sin. Not everyone will demonstrate the same amount of forgiveness all the time. Our growth in Christ and in holiness will not always look the same or be on the same “growth curve.” But, if we’ve been forgiven and the Spirit is at work in us, then the overall tenor of our lives should be one of forgiveness towards others, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can pray the Lord’s Prayer with full confidence and without fear. The forgiveness of our sins is secure in the work of Christ. And since we’ve been freely forgiven by God, we should stand ready to freely forgive others.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. “(Ephesians 4:32)

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Hard Job of Interpreting Job

This past Sunday evening, a young woman in our congregation asked if I knew of a book or sermon series to help her work through portions of the book of Job. She was, like any who have spent time studying Job–especially chapters 3-37–wrestling with how to understand the many difficult things said by Job and his friends. It is a well attested fact that neither Martin Luther or John Calvin wrote commentaries on the book of Job–though Calvin preached 159 sermons on the book during 1554-1555. The Puritan Joseph Caryl–a member of the Westminster Assembly–preached 424 sermons on the book of Job over a 24 year period (1643-1666). Spurgeon was right when he wrote, “Caryl must have inherited the patience of Job to have completed his stupendous task.” To follow Caryl’s example would, however, be highly unadvisable, as Derek Thomas has explained: “In the final sermon [Caryl] apologizes, saying: ‘I have not attained so clear an understanding of some passages.’ Despite the value of the sermons (currently in print in twelve volumes),” writes Thomas “this is not an example to follow!”

Despite the enormous challenges the reader faces when working through the book of Job, it is full of divinely inspired spiritual instruction for believers. The book of Job teaches us, in an unparalleled way, about God’s sovereignty over all things, the reality of spiritual warfare, the hope of the consummation, the rationale for the suffering of the godly, the mysterious wisdom of God in creation and providence, the need to be careful about how we counsel friends who are suffering and the important place of prayer and worship in the life of the believer.

The book of Job poses a great number of interpretive challenges for the reader. This is on account of both the Hebrew language it contains as well as on account of the difficulties of interpreting the content of the lengthy dialogue between Job and his friends. For instance, much of what Job’s friends tell him appears to be sound theology that is clearly misapplied to his situation–making it bad theology. Add to this the fact that the Holy Spirit says, at the outset of the book, that Job was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” However, when the Lord confronts Job, at the end of the book, he addresses him as one who “darkens counsel with words without knowledge.” What are we to make of the different views of this one who suffers so greatly throughout the narrative? Then, there is the question of how to relate the book of Job to the history of redemption. Is Job a type of Christ? He certainly appears to be so in light of the fact that he is a righteous man who suffers and who intercedes for the good of his friends. He undergoes a death and resurrection–suffering followed by glory. However, the New Testament never alludes to or calls Job a type of Christ. 

In order to help the reader work through many of these challenges, I want to recommend a few books, articles and sermon series to help us navigate the difficult terrain of this wonderfully complex portion of God’s word. 


Theodore Beza Job Expounded

William Henry Green Conflict and Triumph: The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded

C.J. Williams The Shadow of Christ in the Book of Job

Richard BelcherJob: The Mystery of Suffering and God’s Sovereignty

Derek Thomas Calvin’s Teaching on Job

Derek Thomas Storm Breaks (Welwyn Commentary on Job)

Geoff Thomas Job Sermon Manuscripts

C.C. Jones, “The Doctrine of God in the Book of Job,” in The History of the Church of God


Laird Harris, “The Book of Job and Its Doctrine of God,” Grace Theological Journal 13.3 (Fall 1972) pp. 3-33

Meredith Kline Introduction to Job

Meredith Kline “Trial By Ordeal,” in W. Godfrey ed. Through Christ’s Word: A Festschrift for Philip E. Hughes

Lynne Newell “Job: Repentant or Rebellious,” Westminster Theological Journal vol. 46, pp. 298-315.

Audio Sermon Series

Derek Thomas

William Still

Eric Alexander

Joseph A. Pipa

John Piper

Mark Dever

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Rock Badgers Would Like a Word With Us

“Do you know what would happen if the world suddenly stopped spinning?” I asked my kids during our morning Bible time. My 12-year-old consulted one of her favorite books What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.1 If the earth and all terrestrial objects stopped spinning, but the atmosphere retained its velocity, almost everyone would die immediately. If you weren’t swept away by the thousand-mile-per-hour winds, you’d certainly be pulverized by the thousand-mile-per-hour impact of all the debris flying about. You would be safe for a time if you were deep underground or in a polar research station (since the strongest winds would be nearest the equator), but not for long. The wind would eventually stop by way of friction with the earth’s surface, but that would heat the air and atomize the surface of the ocean, resulting, among many other phenomena, in massive global thunderstorms. After that, for 6 months one side of the earth would bake in the heat of the sun and the other would freeze since the sun would no longer rise and set once per day, but only once a year. Eventually, the moon would get us spinning again, but “us” would be long gone.

Now that I had their attention, we read Psalm 104–in which we have 35 verses praising the Lord for his power, control, and care over his creation:

“He set the earth on its foundations so that it should never be moved…The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers…You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth…The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God…There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it…When you hide your face, they [all creatures] are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground…”

We talked about God’s care for creatures that human beings never see, for the bugs in our backyard, to the undiscovered species at the bottom of the oceans, to the flowers that bloom in mountain valleys where no eye watches, but God’s. I told them, “all creation testifies that God is in control, he is good, and that he rejoices in His own works and glory.”

I told them to look out the window. “See those trees in our backyard? Those really tall ones? They’ve been growing there for over 50 years. And they are speaking to you. They are saying, ‘Look at me! God has watered me, and protected me, and grown me from a tiny acorn! And He is the same God that cares for you.’” Then we saw some squirrels, so I pointed them out and explained, “See those carefree squirrels, jumping around from limb to limb? They have something to tell you. They are saying, ‘Watch us play! God provides. We are free to gather what we need and frolic while we work. He is taking care of us. And he’s taking care of you!’” We found some grass peeking through the snow (not always an easy task in Michigan winter), so I told them “Every blade of grass is testifying, telling you what it has seen and experienced first-hand, that when the LORD makes a thing live, it lives. And when He decides its time to die, it dies. The grass is telling you, that God alone is in control, wise, good, and everlasting.” As usually happens, while I taught, I re-educated my own affections.

Every day, billions of people wake up and take for granted that the earth spins just right- that the “sun knows its time for setting” (vs 19). We whisk by the trees, the squirrels, and the grass on our way to solve the day’s many problems. All the while, we worry. We fret. We fear. We consult search engines and statistics, essentially asking, “Will I be ok?” As Christians, we want to trust God, but he feels far away. In reality, the evidence is so large it’s almost out of focus; it’s so familiar we forget it’s there. Psalm 104 cries out to us, slow down, step back, look, and listen. The universe and your own backyard are testifying to you. They’re saying, “God is taking care of us, and he’s taking care you!” The whole creation pleads with us, “sleep while the Lord spins the earth tonight, look to God while you work for your food in the morning, and play like Leviathan in the sea of the blessing and security of Christ.”

1. Munroe, Randall. What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

Reading the Bible: Ordinary Reading (Part 2)

In the previous post we established that good Bible reading requires us read the Bible as God speaking to us in a manner that we can naturally understand. But how do we actually do that?

It’s harder than you might think. Over the years we have trained ourselves to read the Bible in an unnatural way, so we’re going to have to break some bad habits.

Read the book (not around the book)

This may sound obvious, but the first and most important rule for interpreting and appropriating any biblical book is to actually read the book. Our ability to read well is often disrupted by a multitude of distractions, and those distractions halt reading. So read the book as it was meant to be read—that is, in a steady stream without pauses or breaks. You need to immerse yourself in the text.

That sounds easy enough, but it’s actually harder than you might think. The “distractions” that I’m referring to—the distractions that will cause you to lose focus or lead you down the wrong interpretative path—are not all environmental or circumstantial. I’m not really talking about avoiding the annoying thing your kids are doing right now, or the weird noise coming from the radiator. I’m talking about the typical things we do as we read the Bible. Notes. Commentaries. Internet searches. Word studies.

Those things are good, don’t get me wrong, but they will short circuit the reading process. You can use these things later. Don’t start with the commentaries, or the introduction in your study bible. Ignore the notes. As a general rule: don’t read other things while you’re reading this thing. Don’t let other voices distract you from this voice. Give the author of the book you are reading the respect of being heard, rather than talked about.

Actually, the problem is bigger than you think. As long as we’re talking about distracting things that change or short-circuit ordinary reading, let’s talk briefly about how most versions of the Bible are printer. It’s full of little bits and bobs that change the way you read. Sections headings. Footnotes. Cross references. Introductions for each biblical book. Red lettering. Text boxes with explanatory information. Let’s not stop there, because even if you take all those things out of it, those verse numbers and chapter numbers are not original to the text either. What is more, they break up the text into little chunks (often arbitrarily), and we do not naturally read in little chunks, we read in big chunks. You read ordinary books section by section, not word by word, but all the footnotes and verse numbers condition us to read the Bible verse by verse.

So I’d like to recommend buying a $20 book that will change your life. A Reader’s Bible. A Reader’s Bible removes all these secondary distracting bit. They are available for many of the most popular translations. You can get an ESV version here, or an NIV here. The first time you open it you’ll notice the difference. It looks like an “ordinary” book because all this extra stuff is removed, and I can almost guarantee you that it will change how you read. Anytime I’m preaching through a new book I start by reading that book in my reader’s ESV. This is also my go to for devotionals and personal reading. Obviously for bible studies and sermon prep I will need the verse numbers, but start by reading the book the natural and ordinary way. A reader’s bible is great for that.

Another great tool is the audiobook. Now that may not, at first, seem all that “natural.” The disciples and earliest Christians didn’t have audiobooks! Ah, but they did! Remember that for many thousands of years the expectation was that these books would be first read aloud. For most individuals in the church—whether the earliest recipients of a given epistle, or the average church congregant prior to the modern era—the only access one had to Scripture was through public reading. Actually, the Bible itself witnesses to this. In Revelation, for example, John opens by blessing the one who “reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear” (1:3). John’s expectation is that this would be heard, and (probably) all at one in a single sitting. John expects that your access to his work is through someone reading it to you, and may they and you be blessed by it. So grab an audio bible—there are great free resources online—and push play.

Read it All at Once, in a Single Sitting

Push play, and don’t rewind, fast-forward, pause, or stop until you get to the end.

As we mentioned above, we are conditioned to read the Bible in small bits rather than big bits. We pull it apart, slice it up, divide it into pieces. We only study it after it’s been dissected and cut up into its component parts, and then we wonder why it seems lifeless. Again, there is a stage in the reading process where this is appropriate and helpful, but this isn’t the way we ordinarily approach communication, and so we shouldn’t start here.

As you read, don’t back up. Don’t stop. Keep going. You might not understand this word or that verse or even whole paragraphs, but don’t be discouraged. You can always go back later and ask those kinds of questions. First get a sense of the forest.

Again, audiobooks are a great way of forcing yourself to do this. Stephen King, in preparation for writing a sequel to one of his previous books, stated in an interview that he went back and listened to the audio recording of the original book. He found it fascinating. The audio version forced him to be swept along with the narrative. He didn’t have time for nitpicking, for questioning, for details. He was the passenger, and could do little more than enjoy the ride. In other words, he was forced to receive the tale as one of his readers might read it. He couldn’t say “oh, I should have used this word instead of that word.” As such, it was perfect preparation for the sequel because it reminded him of the ethos and feel of the world he created, and thereby enabled him to jump back into the world for its sequel.

Read forwards. Don’t go back. Until you’re done.

Theses are a few of the steps we can seek to utilize when learning to read the Bible with maximum profit. In the last post in this series, we will consider the final skill. 

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

The Psalm-Singing Church

It should surely not surprise us to learn that the church of our day has neglected one of the greatest treasures God has given her to worship Him–namely, the Psalter. The living God has breathed out an entire book of truth for us to sing back to Him whenever we gather together in corporate worship. Perhaps such a neglect has occurred on account of antiquated translations, difficult accompanying tunes or simply because of a lack of familiarity with the Old Testament people, places, events and symbols. Regardless, the church is certainly no better for having passed over the numerous inspired songs in the Psalter. It would be of enormous benefit to our churches if we would actively seek to reinstitute the practice of Psalm-singing in our congregations. At the very least, churches should try to sing one or more Psalms a month in gathered worship on the Lord’s Day. This takes a measure of planning and instruction on the part of pastors, elders and musicians. However, it is safe to say that any congregation that undertakes such an intitiative, will reap rich, spiritual benefit. 

At the end of last year, we started working through Bob Godfrey’s Ligonier teaching series Learning to Love the Psalms in our small groups. This, we trust has served as a helpful introductory interpretive guide to the Psalms. We plan on continuing that series through the first quarter of 2018 in our small groups.

As we begin another year at New Covenant, our elders have decided to reintroduce an evening worship service in which one of our pastors will preach a sermon series on the Psalms. Additionally, we plan on singing a portion of a Psalm–immediately after the exposition on it. It is our desire that they will help encourage our congregants to sing the Psalms with understanding and delight. There are a number of resources that we plan on using in preparation for this sermon series and singing of Psalms. Some of them are more theological in nature and some are more devotional.

In addition to the plethora of helpful commentaries that have been published on the Psalms, I’ve found the followiing works to be most helpful in navigating the historical and theological nuances of the book:

Richard Belcher’s The Messiah and the Psalms

Herman Selderhuis’ Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms

Sindney Greisdanus’ Preaching Christ from the Psalms

O. Palmer Robertson’s The Flow of the Psalms

William Binnie’s The Psalms: Their History, Use and Teaching

Horatius Bonar’s Christ and His Church in the Psalms

John Calvin Heart Aflame

E.W. Henstenberg Commentary on the Psalms, vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3

Here is the basic schedule for our sermon series, along with the Psalm we will sing from The Book of Psalms for Worship (each Psalm has been coupled to a familiar hymn tune from the Trinity Hymnal):

  • January 21 – Psalm 1
  • Psalm 1 A to the tune of the hymn, “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”
  • January 28 – Psalm 2 
  • Psalm 2C to the tune of the hymn, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
  • February 4 – Psalm 3-4
  • Psalm 3A to the tune of the hymn, “Amazing Grace”
  • February 11 – Psalm 7
  • Psalm 7A to the tune of the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”
  • February 18 – Psalm 8
  • Psalm 8 to “Amsterdam”
  • February 25 – Psalm 14
  • Psalm 14A to the tune of the hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”
  • March 4 – Psalm 15
  • Psalm 15A to the tune of the hymn, “More Love to Thee, O Christ”
  • March 11- Psalm 16
  • Psalm 16 to the tune of the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”
  • March 18 – Psalm 17
  • Psalm 17A to the tune of the hymn, “My Faith Has Found a Resting Place”
  • March 25 – Psalm 18
  • Psalm 18A to the tune of the hymn, “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness”
  • April 1 – Psalm 19
  • Psalm 19A to the tune of the hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord is King”
  • April 8 – Psalm 20
  • Psalm 20A to the tune of the hymn, “And Can It Be!”
  • April 15 – Psalm 21
  • Psalm 21A to the tune of the hymn, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”
  • April 22 – Psalm 22
  • Psalm 22B to the tune of the hymn, “The God of Abraham Praise”
  • April 29 – Psalm 23
  • Psalm 23B to the tune of the hymn, “The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll Not Want”
  • May 6 – Psalm 24
  • “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Mighty Gates” (p. 198 in the Trinity Hymnal)
  • May 13 – Psalm 27
  • Psalm 27C to the tune of the hymn, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”
  • May 20 – Psalm 29
  • Psalm 29 to the tune of the hymn, “O Worship the King”
  • May 27 – Psalm 30
  • Psalm 30B to the tune of the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”
  • June 3 – Psalm 31
  • Psalm 31B to the tune of the hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal”
  • June 10 – Psalm 32
  • Psalm 32C to the tune of the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say”
  • June 17 – Psalm 34
  • Psalm 34B to the tune of the hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers” (No chorus after each verse)
  • June 24 – Psalm 36
  • Psalm 36B to the tune of “I Sought the Lord, and Afterward I Knew”
  • July 1 – Psalm 37
  • Psalm 37D to the tune of the hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”
  • July 8 – Psalm 38
  • Psalm 38C to the tune of the hymn, “God, My King, They Might Confessing”
  • July 15 – Psalm 39
  • Psalm 39B to the tune of the hymn, “Abide with Me”
  • July 22 – Psalm 40
  • Psalm 40A to the tune of the hymn, “Come Christians, Join to Sing”
  • July 29 – Psalm 42-43
  • Psalm 43A to the tune of the hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  • August 5 – Psalm 45
  • Psalm 45A to the tune of the hymn, “He Leadeth Me”
  • August 12 – Psalm 46
  • Psalm 46A to the tune of the hymn, “I Sing the Almighty Power of God”
  • August 19 – Psalm 47
  • Psalm 47A to the tune of the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (repeat tune halfway through the Psalm)
  • August 25 – Psalm 48
  • Psalm 48C to the tune of the hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (without repeating the last line of each verse)
  • September 2 – Psalm 49
  • Psalm 49B to the tune of the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be” (repeat last line of each verse)
  • September 9 – Psalm 50
  • Psalm 50B to the tune of the hymn, “I Love Your Kingdom Lord”
  • September 16 – Psalm 51
  • Psalm 51A to the tune of the hymn, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”
  • September 23 – Psalm 55
  • Psalm 55A to the tune of the hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”
  • September 30 – Psalm 61
  • Psalm 61 A to the tune of the hymn, “O Worship the King”
  • October 7 – Psalm 62
  • Psalm 62B to the tune of the hymn, “I Sing the Almighty Power of God”
  • October 14 – Psalm 63
  • Psalm 63B to the tune of the hymn, “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee”
  • October 21 – Psalm 65
  • Psalm 65A to the tune of the hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus”
  • October 28 – Psalm 67
  • Psalm 67B to the tune of the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation”
  • November 4 – Psalm 69
  • Psalm 69D to the tune of the hymn, “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”
  • November 11 – Psalm 70
  • Psalm 70B to the tune of the hymn, “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed”
  • November 18 – Psalm 73
  • Psalm 73A to the tune of the hymn, “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” (p. 522 in the Trinity Hymnal
  • November 25 – Psalm 78
  • Psalm 78A to the tune of the hymn, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
  • December 2 – Psalm 80
  • Psalm 80 to the tune of the hymn, “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched”
  • December 9 – Psalm 81
  • Psalm 81A to the tune of the hymn, “The Lord’s My Shpeherd, I’ll Not Want
  • December 16 – Psalm 84
  • Psalm 84A to the tune of the hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers, Holy Faith”

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.

True Self-Knowledge

Have you ever gone through some sort of identity crisis? You know, the kind where you wonder who you are and what you are supposed to do?

After living in the same town for nearly twenty years, I moved to another state. Since then, I’ve gone through an identity crisis of sorts. Where I used to live, I knew who I was. I knew where I belonged and my role. I knew what my church needed from me and where I fit in there. Since I’ve moved, I feel like a visitor wherever I go. I often feel out of place and I wonder— who am I in this new place?

The Bible teaches us that the only way to know ourselves is to first know God.

Isaiah Learns Who He Is

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet had a vision of heaven. He saw the Lord in all His holiness. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5).

Can you imagine that? The sights and sounds Isaiah experienced were extraordinary! In seeing God on His throne as ruler of all things, Isaiah saw himself in contrast to the holiness and magnificence of God. He responded with the only thing that made sense, “Woe is me!”

R.C. Sproul comments on this passage in The Holiness of God, “In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart…For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.”

To Know Ourselves, We Must Know God

Whatever identity questions we face in life, whether it is seeking our purpose or place, knowing what job we should do, or finding our roles in our homes, communities, and churches, we can’t know who we are until we know God. Only when we stand before His holiness and see ourselves in contrast will we realize who we truly are. As John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, “it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” First we look at who God is; then we look at ourselves in contrast.

Like Isaiah, we need to see that God is ruler of all things. He sits high on the throne of the universe, ruling over all mankind and over every living thing. We often live as though we are the kings and queens of our own little kingdoms. We live as though we are independent and sufficient within ourselves. But God alone is the creator and sustainer. He gives life and breath to all things. He sustains that life with food and water He provides. This is what Job learned in his own encounter with God, “Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 38:41).

As the heavenly beings in Isaiah’s vision revealed, God is holy. Thrice holy. He is other, set apart from everything else in existence. Nothing and no one can compare to his glory and righteousness. Upon seeing God’s glory and holiness, Isaiah realized he was unclean and unworthy. In our daily lives, when we compare ourselves to others, and especially to the dark world around us, we can think we are okay. We don’t grasp the true depths of our sinfulness. It’s only when we understand God’s holiness do we realize no good deed would make us worthy to stand before God and live. Isaiah was rightly humbled and saw the true state of his sinful condition. An angel then took a hot coal from the altar and brought it to Isaiah. “With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (v.7). We too need our sin atoned for; we need a salvation and pardon from outside ourselves. God provided this through the righteous life and substitutionary death of Christ—the final and perfect sacrifice for sin.

After Isaiah received pardon, the voice of the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send?” (v. 8). Only after cleansing from sin did Isaiah receive his calling and his purpose for God. Once he knew God and himself in contrast, once he acknowledged his neediness and helplessness before the King of the universe, and once he was cleansed from sin, only then was he ready to fulfill God’s plan for him.

True knowledge of self only comes when we know God. While we will likely not encounter God the way Isaiah did, we don’t need to because we have His word. There we learn who God is in all His splendor, majesty, holiness, and might. There we see that Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:30). In the pages of Scripture we learn, as Isaiah did, the true state of our sinfulness and helplessness. There we see what Christ did to make us able to stand in God’s presence and live. Only then are we ready and prepared to know ourselves, our place, and our purpose.

Christward Collective is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Christward Collective and the mission of the Alliance.