The Way They Should Go…

During my early days as a Christian, perhaps my favorite book of the Bible was Proverbs primarily because I felt that Proverbs was written for me – a young and impressionable teenager who was trying to understand life. I read through this book for the first time when I was about 15 years old and now my wife and I are in the position of teaching the book of Proverbs to teenagers at our church. The teenagers at our church are the type of children who grew up memorizing and learning the Westminster Shorter Catechism; however, it was a shock to me that most of them had not read through the entire book of Proverbs. I began to realize that this experience is not unique to our church. Commenting on this matter, Bruce Waltke states:

“But, tragically, the church has practically discarded the book of Proverbs…Of its 930 ancient sayings many Christians know three – to fear the LORD, to trust Him, and to ‘train their children in the way they should go.”

If true, this is deeply discouraging because we live in a world bombarded by foolish speculation, inane cliches, and triviality. As a consequence, the expression of true wisdom is rare and in short supply today. The church stands alone as the “pillar and support of the truth” and we have been given the rich repository of inspired tradition that carries a mandate for a holy life. As the course and bulk of biblical wisdom, the book of Proverbs remains the model for humanity to learn how to live under God and before mankind. As a consequence, this book calls the church to diligent study and application. It calls the fool, both young and old, to turn from their folly and to walk in the path of wisdom given to us from the Scriptures.

Consider the preamble of the book of Proverbs:

“The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, To discern the sayings of understanding, To receive instruction in wise behavior, Righteousness, justice, and equity; To give prudence to the naive, To the youth knowledge and discretion, A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel, To understand a proverb and a figure, The words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:1-7).

Wisdom vs. Folly

The preamble begins by considering the primary author of the book of Proverbs – King Solomon. He was the last king of united Israel and the Scriptures tell us that the Lord gave Him remarkable wisdom (cf. 2 Chronicles 1). Like most wise individuals today, the sages of Israel (including Solomon) drew their inspiration for coining proverbs by observing and reflecting on nature and human behavior. At times, the sages learned wisdom and proverbs from the surrounding nations, such as ancient Egyptian wisdom literature. However, this was not simply a “copy, paste, repeat” type of learning. In all of their learning (include the insights from foreign nations), everything still had to be considered and filtered through Israel’s worldview, which was based on Israel’s unique covenant relationship with God.

Young men and women, throughout all generations, are bombarded with numerous paths to take in life and we all have spent a tremendous amount of time observing and learning from the society around us. However, very few young men and women have the ability to see beyond the surface of human behavior in our sinful world. This book was written primarily for young people as a compass by which to direct their lives. The sayings of the book of Proverbs aim to give Israel’s youth insight and it emphasizes how important it is to seek, purchase, and learn true wisdom and true understanding. If this was needed during the time of Solomon’s reign, how much more do we need this today!

In the book of Proverbs, young men and women are generally categorized as “naive”, as being easily misled or easily seduced. Wisdom and folly are competing for our attention; yet, it’s important to note that our default position is folly. Many of us have experienced the folly of youth – where we are prone to trust every word and stumble into various misfortunes. Many of us have childhood friends who have walked on the path of folly and their lives ended with destruction. Until a person decides to no longer remain uncommitted to biblical wisdom, he is in a wayward state and if he doesn’t embrace the blessings (and admonitions) of biblical wisdom, then he will walk towards destruction. However, because young people are easily shaped, they can be improved by proper instruction so that they walk in the path of godly wisdom. The hope of this book is that young men and women will join the company of the wise and by so doing avoid the pitfalls associated with a life of folly.

Obtaining Wisdom and Insight

This leads to the most basic question: how does one obtain true wisdom and insight. The preamble of this book states that the foundation of this wisdom is the fear of the Lord. As Waltke notes,

“What the alphabet is to reading, notes to reading music, and numerals to mathematics, the fear of the LORD is to attaining the revealed knowledge of this book.”

The responsibility to respond to instruction lies squarely on the shoulders of the simple. They must listen to it, accept it, love it, prize it more highly than money, and not let go of it. In order to receive this wisdom, one has to admit that they are truly naive and simple – this is true for both young and old. One must submit himself to instruction in order to quell the innate waywardness and rebellion. This illustrates a very essential theme in the book of proverbs:wisdom cannot be possessed without instruction to correct a moral fault and this instruction is connected to reproof and teaching. The blessing given to the person who submits under this instruction will give him the same testimony as the Psalmist:

“Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, because I have observed your precepts” (Psalm 119:98-100).

The book of Proverbs enables young people to personally internalize and experience wisdom. This wisdom will produce intellectual discernment in youth; in other words, wisdom trains a person how to think properly in God’s world. The wisdom gained from instruction will protect a person from temptation, enable him to behave wisely and speak well, and avoid unnecessary suffering due to acts of folly.

For those parents who have teenagers in your home, it would be my encouragement to walk through this marvelous book with them. May you use this book to instruct them to forsake the path of folly and destruction and to walk in the ancient paths of the godly.

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 Many Faces of Legalism

A number of years ago, I defined legalism as, “an attempt to win God’s favor apart from the finished and sufficient work of Christ on behalf of sinners.” This is a doctrinal legalism which undermines the gospel. There also exists a practical legalism that is often ignored or misunderstood—a legal root that is at the heart of every one of our sins (1 Corinthians 15:56). Legalism exists in every heart, and most of the time it’s a subtle way of talking about God and how He relates to His people. Doctrinal legalism distorts the gospel, and practical legalism stands in the way of our communion with God and with one another. Some forms of legalism are more obvious than others, but there are at least five types of legalism to note:

1. Legal-Works

The rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22) assumed he could “inherit eternal life” by law keeping, and even assumed that he had done so when Jesus presented him with the second table of the law. “Teacher,” he said, “all these I have kept from my youth” (10:20). The question of what he must do to inherit eternal life, albeit understandable, possesses, in his mind, a necessity to work for his salvation. He did not understand the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. If salvation is based upon work, each man will look to himself and determine that he’s good enough, and if not, he should keep trying harder. Jesus’ point, of course, was to show the young man that he had, in fact, not upheld the law to perfection and indeed, no matter how hard he tried, never would.

This is typically the most blatant form of legalism to identify (doctrinal legalism), and is akin to all other religious systems that exist. Working harder and doing better to earn God’s favor is the default position of all mankind, and it takes an understanding of how free God’s grace truly is to break the chains of self-righteous efforts for salvation.

2. Legal-Holiness

Sanctification is a vital part of the Christian life. Every believer should desire to become more like Christ—to become more holy that we might have a greater enjoyment of life with God. However, the pursuit of holiness can easily become a pursuit to retain salvation or favor with God. By faith, we have been saved, but to maintain our right standing before the Father, we have a lot of work to do! John Owen calls this, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness.”1 There’s no doubt that sanctification comes through the diligent and regular use of the ordinary means of grace. Christians must, in fact, do something to be sanctified. However, to make sanctification all about a list of good deeds and disciplines is to undermine the work of the Holy Spirit in a legalistic attempt at holiness. God’s love for me does not wax and wane based on my daily performance, the strength of my faith, or the depth of my sorrow for sin. It is legalistic to assume that I can do more on my own so that God’s affections for me might increase.

3. Legal-Fences

Every Christian should delight in David’s prayer, “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it” (Psalm 119:33-35). God’s law is a beautiful, holy representation of God’s immutable character, and should not be despised, but should cause great delight. However, the law has been given as part of “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life…unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men” (2LBC 1.6, emphasis added). In other words, God’s law stands on its own and does not need man’s help to ensure it is kept.

Building legal-fences is looking at God’s settled law, and then erecting fences around it to make sure everyone not only doesn’t break the law, but that they never even get close. The further the fence can be built from the law, the further we are from breaking it. Legal-fence builders say things like, “Covetousness is a sin; therefore, we shouldn’t watch commercials on television or go window shopping on Main Street.” God never built those fences, the legalist did. Binding a believer’s conscience in ways that God does not is always a wrong and distorted abuse of the law.

The Apostle Paul rebukes legal-fence building in his letter to the Colossians writing, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Colossians 2:20–23). Building legal-fences may stop an outward action, but it does nothing to deal with the real issues of the heart.

4. Legal-Interpretation

Our Pharisaical hearts are excellent at defining the letter of the law (especially for other people), but Jesus was constantly rebuking the Pharisees for misunderstanding and misapplying its spirit. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is, in large part, Jesus’ explanation of the significant difference between what one may read in the letter, but ignore in the spirit of every law. It’s easy to feel righteous about not murdering anyone, but it’s quite another thing to be told that “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22).

The justice system in the West understands this distinction well, at least in theory. The role of a judge and jury are to hear the facts of a case, to consider the applicable law, and determine if the law was intended to prevent the actions from happening that are being tried. Did the defendant murder a victim, or did they kill an assailant in self-defense? While the action may be exactly the same, the spirit of the law dictates very different outcomes, and rightfully so. Spirit and letter distinctions are everywhere in the Bible, and are essential if it is to be rightly understood and utilized.

5. Legal-Words

Sometimes legalism is difficult to detect because it is couched in truthful language. It is possible to so zealously emphasize the importance of expending one’s time and effort in the things of God that the blessings of God to be enjoyed are no longer assumed to be acceptable. One might reason that God has done so much for believers in giving His Son to live a perfect life, die a sinner’s death, and be raised from the dead that we, by faith, might have everlasting life; so, we have a duty to God to do all that we can for His Kingdom, and nothing should stand in the way. It’s hard to argue with that!

However, the subtle tendency is to assume that everything that’s done in life that’s not directly related to loving and serving God is wrong or unprofitable. Our subtle, practical legalism is often discovered in our condemnation of the enjoyments of common grace. Watching the big game? You should have a prayer meeting instead. Playing a round of golf? Bible study would be far more profitable. Eating a fancy dinner with friends? You should spend that money on missions. In the end, God is an overbearing lawgiver who always demands more and more work from his people and never lets them enjoy the good things He has created.

We are all born with a legal-heart, and the Christian life is one of discovering just how legal-hearted we continue to be. It’s not until we understand the right use of God’s law in its intimate union with the gospel that we begin to move away from every form of legalism. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

1. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 7.

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.

“Join or Die?” The Necessity and Gift of Church Membership

In 1754 Benjamin Franklin published a cartoon called “Join or Die.” It pictured a snake cut into eights representing the British colonies in the New World. Franklin argued that unless the colonies formed one body they would never be able to resist the powerful threat of the French and their Indian allies.

Considering the fierce enemies assaulting believers in every age (1 Pet. 5:8; John 15:19; Gal. 5:19) Franklin’s plea speaks to one of the most basic questions every believer has to answer: “What is the relationship between the Christian and the church?” Increasingly, more people see less of a connection between the two. Sixty percent of Americans who never attend church during the course of a year view themselves as Christians.1 But a sincere perusal of Scripture shows a much tighter relationship between the Christian and the church. In fact, contrary to the practice of most Americans, God not only calls believers to attend church but to bind themselves to a local, Bible-believing congregation in a visible and vital way.

The Question of Attending Church

This question is answered definitively in Hebrews 10:25. “Let us not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but [exhort] one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” This verse requires more than regularly attending worship services, but it doesn’t require less. Believers go to church. In fact, the writer says that church attendance is more important today than it was yesterday!

Salvation is never merely a personal experience. The fall brought individualism; Adam and Eve hid from God and from each other (Gen. 3:7–8). God sought them out to become his worshiping people (v. 9). Redemption creates a new community. The Bible speaks to God’s people in the plural: “Come let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).

Both Catholics and historic Protestants have maintained that outside of the church there is no salvation. While allowing for exceptions, as a rule the only place God promises to save is in the church (Matt. 16:18–19). No one who disregards the body may claim to be united to the head of the church. At almost no point in the history of the world would someone who neglected corporate worship be regarded as a Christian. Without regular church attendance we cut ourselves off from the means of grace and lose contact with a vital counter-cultural experience.

The more knotty question is, “Must I join a church? Must I pledge to meaningfully belong to a local congregation until for weighty and justifiable reasons I am called elsewhere?”

Necessity of Joining the Church

The difference between attending and joining a church is analogous to the difference between dating and marriage. When it comes to our church life, the Bible clearly steers us toward the latter.

The Old Testament Assumes Membership

God’s threat that covenant breakers be cut off from his people (e.g. Gen. 17:14) is meaningless apart from a robust understanding of membership. Likewise, outsiders could only join the covenant community through membership rites. No non-Israelite could simply say, “I read Torah, go to temple, and tithe, so I’m part of the people of God.” “When a stranger…wants to keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as a native of the land” (Ex. 12:43, 48). Church membership no longer requires circumcision (thank God!). But the principle of initiation into God’s tangible community (through baptism and membership vows) remains.

Church Analogies Symbolize Membership

The members of the church are living stones (1 Pet. 2:5) which are vitally connected together. The church is a body (1 Cor. 12) which cannot be constituted only intermittently. The church is the family of God (Eph. 3:15), an image that assumes cohesiveness and commitment. The church is the flock of God (1 Peter 5:2–3). Far from an abstract concept, Jesus says the flock can be numbered (Matt. 18:12).

Pastoral Care Requires Membership

Elders are responsible for the souls under their care (Acts 20:28; Heb. 13:17). Likewise, believers must submit to the oversight of their shepherds (1 Thess. 5:12–13). Such a reciprocal relationship of oversight and submission requires more than church attendance. It calls for a membership commitment.

The Great Commission Implies Church Membership (Matt. 28:18–20).

Baptism, discipling and teaching are all to be done in the context of a visible church with an ordained leader and a duly constituted church body. For this reason, the historic church practiced membership and developed The Apostles’ Creed as a rule for church membership.

Church Discipline Requires Membership

Church discipline is a gift that God gives to the church for the maturity of her members and the purity of her body. Matthew 18 requires that those who refuse to submit to church discipline are to be identified as unbelievers, that is, those who are outside of God’s community of grace (cf. John 9:22). Excommunication assumes communication, a word that implies intimate participation.

Sanctification is Connected to Membership

Sanctification takes place in the context of union with Christ and other believers (Heb. 2:11–12). If you want to grow in grace commit yourself to a healthy Christian community whose members will sometimes disappoint you. Attendees often scatter under duress; mature members stick out church problems and grow. Those who never join a church rarely learn to bow their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; his yoke is not heavy or burdensome, but it does demand submission (Matt. 11:28–30). Your loved ones also benefit from your church membership. Long-term membership in a faithful church conveys a kind of commitment that is rare today.

Expressions of Living in the Church

Assuming the biblical necessity of church membership, what are some of the basic commitments that members make?

Church Members Prioritize Worship (Heb. 10:25)

Corporate worship should never be reduced to a duty. But unless we know our duties we might never learn to delight in them. Regular corporate worship is both a duty and a delight. Yet, some of us skip worship more often than work. Some of us wouldn’t miss an episode of our favorite T.V. show, but aren’t bothered by missing worship. Some of us may be altering our future family tree by attending worship with less frequency than our parents did. We need to learn to say “no” to commitments that conflict with corporate worship.

Prioritizing worship also means that coming to church is more about meeting with God than about meeting with our friends. Suppose all your church friends moved away and were replaced by an entirely different but orthodox congregation. Whether you would retain your membership or not depends on your priorities.

Church Members Maintain the Unity of the Church

Believers must not retreat from the world (John 17:15). We must love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44). But our primary commitment is to God’s family. As we cultivate deep friendships among God’s people we will be more likely to handle disagreements with care and more reticent to create unwarranted division.

Church Members Receive and Give Instruction and Discipline

If we want to know God’s will for us the most important thing we can do is go to church. Believers welcome preaching “not as the word of men but as is in truth, the word of God.” Those who carefully hear the preached word find that it “effectively works in them” (1 Thess. 2:13). It also works through them. Church members edify their brothers and sisters through their time, talents, and resources (Rom. 12:4–8), energized by the lively preaching of God’s word.

Church membership is a gift and a duty. It’s sort of like making children eat their dessert. Christ saves and sanctifies sinners in the church. Where else would we want to be?

1. https://www.barna.com/research/new-statistics-on-church-attendance-and-a…

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.

Spiritual Obesity

Have you ever referred to another person’s weight without transgressing taboos, or creating discomfort? It’s a topic without a winning exit strategy. We’re all sensitive about our weight, and you can bet the person you’re speaking to is more conscious of it than you are. I want to suggest, however, there is a sort of fatness we all carry to which we are mostly oblivious, but which nevertheless weighs us down. I’m talking about spiritual fat. The Bible speaks to holidays and rituals of fasting and feasting which help to compose culture and identity. As human beings, and particularly as Americans, we are pretty well experts at the latter. Fasting, on the other hand, is confusing, pointless, and legalistic. Or so we think.

In Deuteronomy 32:25, we read: “But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked; you grew fat, stout, and sleek; then he forsook God who made him and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.”

The subsequent verses go on to lay a charge against Israel for their further unfaithfulness. But it all started when they ‘grew fat.’ This is spiritual fatness–and we all have a few pounds to shed in this department. Pampered, comfortable, spoiled, and entitled. Are these attributes we merely complain about seeing in Millennials? Or, can you see how we are all carrying some of that fat? The articles of satiation may differ for us now, compared to the grain, wine, and carved idols of the Israelites; but, it’s doubtful that our American society has progressed to a state of improved spiritual fitness.

We lack for nothing. When was the last time you felt needy, weak, or deprived? Try going twenty-four, or even twelve hours without food. The point is not the feeling–it’s for what or to whom do you look for help. It is God who sustains the entire universe, including our every breath, through and for the glory of Jesus Christ. (Col 1:16) God delights to deliver, to bring up the needy, the downcast, the humble, the afflicted. But we,  like the church in Laodicea, often think to ourselves, “I’ve prospered. I don’t need anything.” In reality, we need everything. We’re utterly dependent creatures; God is the all sustaining Creator. He wants us to look to Him, pray to Him, seek from Him, and thank Him constantly for our daily bread. Going without daily bread for a time reminds us that it’s something we must seek from Him, and that Jesus is the only bread that will enable us to never hunger again.

Justin Poythress is the Assistant Pastor of Student Ministry at Christ Community Church in Carmel, IN. He is the author of “The Grace and Gift of Differentness,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind (Crossway, 2017). 

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 Blessing of Elderly Saints

Recently, a local pastor in the area told me that the median age of his church was somewhere in the mid-20’s and that he had no one over the age of 50. Many would have been impressed by such a fact. However, I was somewhat saddened to hear it–mainly because my friend is missing out on one of the most wonderful group of believers in the church – the elderly saints. Sure, there are always a few (as with any other age group) that are cantankerous and surly; but, as a whole, I am almost more thankful for this group of congregants than I am any other in the churches in which I have pastored.

I have not always felt that way. Like most, when I was in my twenties I was looking for a church that had other twenty-somethings who I could associate and befriend. This is not wrong per se and is typical for most visitors to a church who are looking for others like themselves. But as I became more involved with the life of the church – both as a lay person and then as a minister – I quickly found myself having a growing appreciation, and most surprisingly, many friendships with those much older than myself.

Here are several reasons why I am thankful to God for the elderly saints in the congregation:

1. Love

No other group has loved me and my family better than this age group. Perhaps it reminds them of when they were younger, and they had little kids – but there is a bond and affection that they have for us, and us with them. They are genuinely glad to see us, ask us how we are doing and remember my children’s birthdays with cards and small gifts. Many have become like our children’s adopted grandparents. Sure, my ten-year old son may not like it now when old ladies give him hugs or kiss his cheeks, but I think later in life he will be thankful for the family feeling that our church has provided and the love that he has received from such people.

2. Prayer

Again, no other group in the church is more dedicated to prayer than this particular age group. Those of us younger tend to think that we can solve most problems and issues through our vigor and actions. But I believe this group has learned the truth   of Zechariah, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD of hosts” (4:6). This leads them to be more fervent in their prayers and dependent upon the Lord. My Grandmother was a prayer warrior – when she passed a few years ago – I missed her prayers for me, my family, and the kingdom of God the most. The same is true in the church. When I have an urgent prayer need I send it to this group because I know that they will pray.

3. Maturity

Something that is constantly demonstrated in our culture is that we are an immature society. Social media tends to not help with this because it usually become shared ignorance. We need some rock-solid people in our life that are able to give us perspective. Again, this often comes from this group. Those that have seen that there is truly “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). During pre-marital counseling with couple I urge them to make friendships (outside of their family) with those that are much older than themselves. A relationship with a couple that has been married for 30, 40, 50 years and have demonstrated the fruits of a good marriage is invaluable. Tell them to look for churches that have a good mix of ages. Also knowing that such churches will be generally speaking the more spiritually mature churches as well.

4. Serving

Usually my most reliable and consistent volunteers come from this group. They know the value of hard-work. Some of this is due to their stage of life (retired and without kids), and some might be generational, or goes back to maturity. But whatever it is – I’m thankful. There is not much more draining in the ministry than trying to recruit volunteers for a project or ministry. So it is refreshing when there are those that naturally volunteer or do small-things behind the scene without being asked or looking for recognition. Surely their good deeds will not go unnoticed by the Lord (Mt. 10:42).

5. Focus on Heaven

Lastly, I am thankful for this group because they help all the members of the church keep our eyes on Heaven and the King of Heaven–the Lord Jesus Christ. They know that their days and years on this earth are few. But they do not look at that as a negative but as a positive. With an eager expectation of what lies ahead, they look forward to being with the Lord and being reunited with loved ones lost. What a joy! What perspective that gives the rest of us in church that this life is indeed fleeting. To enjoy every stage of life and to cherish the time that we have. But the greatest days are yet to come when we are present with the Lord.

This age-group will never be the “target” group for church growth strategists. However, if you want a church that actually does the work of the church and gives back to you as a pastor and to the congregants on the whole – then pray for a group of elderly saints. If you already have them – be thankful for them and foster relationships with them. You might find that you (and the church as a whole) are the recipients of such relationships.  “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Prov. 16:31).

Joel Smit is the senior pastor at Smyrna PCA in Atlanta, GA.

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 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.