Assurance and Habitual Sin.

One of the greatest reasons why so many Christians today do not experience the peace that comes through the assurance of salvation can be summarised in one simple question.

Can I truly be a Christian even if I fall to the same sin over and over again?

The answer to this is “yes”.  It is possible to be a genuine Christian even if you fall to the same sins over and over again. Let’s be absolutely clear on this. Either the Lord Jesus saves habitual sinners or he does not save anyone at all. If we do not believe this is true then we strip ourselves of the only weapon that can put our sin to death.

We are all habitual sinners.

Why? Because we are all habitual sinners. Some sins are pretty obvious: drug or alcohol abuse, sexual sin and violence. Others are less obvious: gossip and slander, dishonesty and laziness. Most sins however, are barely detectable to anyone but ourselves: pride, lust, hatred, unbelief, envy and prayerlessness to name a few. Whether our inclination is toward an outward sin like drunkenness or an inward sin like lust, we all sin repeatedly. We commit the same sins again and again and again.

If we begin to feel that this experience of sin is not normal then it weakens our confidence that we are in fact true disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians experience real change.

Reading through the last paragraph may have created a bit of tension inside you. On the one hand, you may feel as though you are able to relate to the experience of habitual sin. You acknowledge that you are guilty of repeating the same offences against God. On the other hand, you may also feel that this should not be the case.

Christians are, after all, new creations. The “old has gone and the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17) and “no-one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9). We are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6) because we have died with Christ to our sinful nature and have been raised to a new life in Christ – a life of righteousness and holiness.

What these passages attest to is that those who have become genuine disciples of Christ should experience real transformation. Something very real, very powerful and very significant has happened to us. We have been changed, and we are continuing to be changed, into the image of Christ. This is an undeniable characteristic of new life in Christ.

Christians experience real struggle.

However, to take these verses out of context would lead to the unhelpful conclusion that the genuine Christian life is free from the constant struggle against sin. This idea, which has unfortunately taken root in some church movements is deeply misleading because it neglects another very important biblical principle about the Christian life.

That other principle is the principle of resistance from the sinful nature. For example, Paul  writes of his experience to the church in Rome (7:18-19), saying:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.

Again in Galatians (5:16-18), he writes:

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

So we can see that struggling with sinful patterns of behaviour is part and parcel of the normal Christian experience. The effect of our new life in Christ is to create a conflict between the influence of the Holy Spirit and our sinful human natures. As we experience transformation we also experience conflict.

The struggle is what matters.

So how does this apply to our assurance of salvation, particularly when we are struggling with habitual sin?  The answer is that it is the struggle that matters. God never said that your sinful nature would go down without a fight. God never said that it would be easy. God never said that it would be quick. You began your Christian life by faith and repentance, and that is the way you should continue.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Col 2:6-7)

You are a true Christian if you are fighting your sin with repentance and faith in Christ. It is only because of the miraculous power of the gospel that you are interested in fighting, so fight your sinful habits with the full assurance of God’s love and forgiveness behind you.

 

 

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Read the Bible like Isaac Watts.

In 1709 Isaac Watts wrote a hymn that has had a profound impact on my walk with Christ, and more particularly, on my understanding of the Bible. The words are as follows…

“Laden with guilt and full of fears, I fly to thee, my Lord,
And not a glimpse of hope appears, but in Thy written word.
The volumes of my Father’s grace does all my grief assuage,
Here I behold my Saviour’s face almost in every page."

The Bible is About Christ

The view of the Bible in this verse is priceless; not merely a book to settle doctrinal disputes, not merely a book to teach morality and wisdom for living, not merely a book that provides authoritative answers to the biggest questions of our existence, but a book that reveals Christ to me. In the Old testament and in the New, the Bible is God’s word to us about Christ. This was Jesus’ own view of Scriptures in Luke 24: 25-27:

He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

This has a massive impact on the way I read and teach the Bible. The purpose of every “quiet time,” every Bible study and every sermon is not simply practical but deeply personal. If the purpose of the Bible is to reveal Christ, the purpose of reading the Bible is to know Christ.

The Gospel Transformation Bible

The trouble is, it is not always easy to behold our Saviour’s face in every page, especially if that page is an obscure passage of Leviticus. The good news is that there are some excellent resources out there to help us. I would like to mention one in particular that I am very excited about.

10ofThose.com has just released a cracking offer on a great publication called the Gospel Transformation Bible (ESV). The tagline is “Christ in all of Scripture. Grace for all of life.” so it precisely the resource we need if we struggle to see how the Old Testament points to Christ. It is currently available for a discount of up to 87% off! In a recent post, I spoke about the usefulness of Study Bibles in interpreting the Bible correctly. So if you are interested in getting one, this would be a great place to start.

In the following links you can have a look at a sample, see the offer, or go directly to the 10ofThose store.

This is an excellent resource at an unbeatable price so I would strongly encourage you to get in on the action, especially if you don’t already own a Study Bible or if the idea of seeing Christ in all of the Scriptures is new to you.

A big thanks to 10ofThose.com for providing a free copy of the Gospel Transformation Bible to Christward Pursuit. You guys rock!

When you doubt your salvation.

We all doubt our salvation.

Sometimes people ask me what pastoral issues I’ve most often encountered in ministry. It is not a difficult question to answer.

By far, the greatest concern for most people in the church is the question as to whether or not they are truly saved. Assurance of salvation has trumped all intellectual doubts, ethical dilemmas (yes, even pornography) and even emotional pain in suffering. It seems odd, doesn’t it? After all, Christians believe the good news that Jesus has decisively secured the salvation of his people through his death and resurrection. So if there was any particular matter we would expect to be fairly sorted in the church it would be this one. Right? Wrong. It is far from sorted. The reality is that we all doubt our salvation at some point or another.

I’m very aware, therefore, that a little blog post like this is never going to be enough to assuage the complex and weighty fears that some may be experiencing. Instead, what I would like to do is point out some of the most simple and practical questions that are often overlooked in our self-examinations. It is important to realise that the following questions are not the most fundamental to consider interms of assurance. They are however the most neglected, which is why I want to start with them.

Are you physically healthy?

I realise that I am probably more pathetic than the average person, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that I struggle with assurance issues every time I get the flu…or even a heavy cold. Ask my wife if you don’t believe me.

God did not make us as segmented people. Our physiology, psychology and spirituality are all connected. So if you are physically unwell, or tired, you will feel the effects in your soul. It does not mean that our faith is doomed to suffer the same fate as our bodies. By God’s grace we can be inwardly renewed even though, outwardly, in our bodies, we are wasting away.

The answer to this is not simply prayer and bible meditation. The answer to these kinds of assurance issues also involves medicine and rest…as well as prayer and bible issues.

Are you mentally healthy?

Equally, if you are struggling with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, then it would be foolish to think that it is not going to have an impact on your assurance. It is important to realise that medicine may be an important part of the solution with mental health as well.
There could well be deep issues at the root of your anxiety and depression that only the gospel can cure, but if you are suffering from heavy depression or anxiety then you are not going to be in a fit enough state to confront those issues.

So go see your pastor, and your doctor, take the medicine and don’t feel guilty about it.

Have you been watching dodgy sermons on YouTube?

It is a little-known fact that if you type your symptoms into Google, whatever they may be, even if you don’t have any, you will be convinced that you are dying. Dr Google always thinks that you are dying. Don’t listen to Dr Google, go and see an actual doctor.

Searching online for the answers to personal spiritual questions is never going to yield satisfactory results. While you may end up reading a very good article or watching a great sermon on YouTube, this result is all but certain.

So go and talk to a real person who understands the gospel and will apply it to you with truth and grace.

Are you under church discipline?

The wonderful thing about being a Christian is that you don’t have to do it alone. The church is there to help. One of the most neglected and overlooked pastoral tools is church discipline.

If you struggle with assurance issues because of guilt over a particular sin or sinful habit then go and talk to one of the pastors (elders/leaders etc) in your church. If they hear you out and don’t tell you that you have to leave the church, then you are almost certainly over-reacting. If they have told you that you must leave the church unless you repent then you are almost certainly in serious spiritual trouble.

Obviously, this assumes that the leadership of your church uphold the theology and morality of the Bible. And of course, it is by no means an infallible system. However, submission to church authorities is a God-given pastoral tool designed to comfort and to warn. So if you have confessed to the pastors, and you are still a member of your church, then you should not have any reason to doubt your salvation.

More Important Questions

Remember, these are not the most important questions to ask, neither are they sufficient to make our calling and election sure. However, they are, in my experience, the most neglected. Next week I want to delve a little deeper into the question of assurance.

 

 

What does it mean to be biblical?

In my last post, I spoke about the danger of zeal without knowledge.

Ironically, those who feel most strongly about the church’s health can very often become a hindrance to it. If we are passionate Christians, the onus is on us to make sure that our passion is both formed and informed by a solid biblical framework.

The question, then, is how do we make sure that our strongest convictions are truly biblical? The reality is that in the Christian world, everyone thinks that they are biblical. This is especially true in the Evangelical world. Yet what is painfully obvious that too many of those claims prove to be false.

I want to propose a few simple questions to help discern the biblical strength of our convictions.

1. Is it what the Bible teaches?

This question is, in some ways, a lot more complicated than it sounds. My aim at this point is not so much the fine-points of biblical interpretation, but rather to ascertain whether our concerns reflect the Bible’s priorities or merely our own hobby-horses.

a) Does the Bible actually say it?

If no, then you have probably found your first problem. If the concept that you are most concerned/passionate/agitated about in your church is not even mentioned in the Bible, the alarm bells should be ringing. It sounds so obvious doesn’t it? As a pastor, I hear people voicing their opinions, some negative and some positive, on a regular basis. I would say that 80% of those opinions concern matters that the bible does not explicitly address.

For example, many Christians have strong opinions about the style of music within the church service, and the instruments that accompany the singing. Yet how many of those opinions arise out of anything taught in the Bible? Better that we call it what it is…personal preference.

b) Have I made sure that I have understood the verses correctly?

Once you’ve made it past this first step, there is another worth asking: am I using the Bible responsibly? The simple principle behind sound biblical interpretation is whether or not we are “reading the Bible as it was written to be read.” You might call it reading the Bible in context or even just using common sense. There are many excellent resources available to us that can offer a great deal of help in our study of the Bible and, at the very least, it is worth referencing a good commentary or study-Bible before calls others to join our campaign.

c) What does the Church have to say about it?

The Church is a wonderful God-given resource to help us understand the Bible. Interpreting the Bible is a community affair…you do not have to do it all by yourself. In fact, you should not. Cross examining your interpretations against how Christians have understood the Bible past and present safeguards us against pride and error. It is not a good sign when you arrive at an interpretation of the Bible that is rejected simultaneously by the leadership of your church (assuming your leaders take the Bible seriously), all of your friends at church as well as orthodox Christians in church history.

2. How important is this issue in the Bible?

a) How often does the Bible mention it?

If the Bible only says something once, it does not make it any less true but it might make it less important. So it is worth asking not just whether or not our passions and concerns are found in the Bible but whether or not they are shared by the Bible. This will protect us from “majoring on the minors” or focusing all of our energy on the least important issues.

b) Are there any warnings or promises associated with it?

It is, of course, not simply about repetition. It is more about the weight that the Bible places on its doctrines. Repetition is one way to discern this but it is not the only way and it is not fool-proof. Another way is to ask whether or not there are any promises or warnings associated with this particular aspect of the Bible’s teachings. We know that the deity and humanity of Christ are important because we are warned that anyone who says teaches anything contrary is, according to 1 John, a false teacher. We know that justification is important because Paul tells us in Galatians that anyone who teaches another way to be justified is anathema.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list so I would be interested to know what questions, or principles, you would add to those mentioned above . My prayer is that these questions would lead to fruitful meditation and increased discernment.

 

Pitfalls in the Pursuit of Godliness

Are you a passionate Christian? Are you passionate about evangelism? Are you passionate about holiness? Are you a threat to the health of your church?

Does that last question seem out of place to you? I’ve started to notice a strange phenomenon in the Christian life: the most zealous people in the church can often be the biggest threat to the church’s health.

It’s true that we should never be lacking in spiritual zeal. The pursuit of holiness and concern for evangelism, for example, are right and good. However, it seems frighteningly easy to allow our passion for godliness to run away with us to the point where we end up with something much less biblical.

The issue I think is that sometimes our zeal is not grounded in knowledge. Our passions are not held in place by a mature understanding of the teachings of Scripture. Here are a few examples.

Pelagius was a heretic (condemned at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD) who asserted free will and denied predestination to such an extent that he reduced the work of Jesus to mere moral example. Pelagianism is the view that we all have the ability within ourselves to obey God and earn salvation; we only needed Jesus to show us how. According to this view, salvation is comes through our successful imitation of the life of Christ. I trust we can all see that this is obviously not what the Bible teaches.

What does this have to do with being passionate about holiness? Here is the interesting thing about Pelagius…he was widely known, even by his opponents, as a godly man who was passionately concerned for the Church’s holiness. He formulated his theology and defended it because he believed that those doctrines would lead to reform. Somewhere along the line, his passions distorted his understanding of the gospel. His zeal was not grounded in knowledge and so it distorted his knowledge.

A few years ago I heard a series of talks by a church planter in Australia who described evangelists as some of the most dangerous people in the church. The church planter’s story was remarkable. He started with a handful of people and the church grew exponentially. A few years later the church was a couple of thousand strong. Yet the journey was plagued with difficulty because those in the church who were most interested in reaching out were also most prone to lead the church into compromise. The desire to reach out was so dominant that it began to replace and distort other biblical imperatives. Everything inside the church had to appeal to those outside the church.

I can see how this happens. Passionate Christians feel very strongly about the problems in the church today. It is only natural that this would lead to opinions on how to solve those problems. The pitfall in the pursuit of godliness lies in our failure to test both our diagnosis and proposed cure against the Bible.

What is the solution? Well, first we need to say that the solution is not that we become less passionate. Passion is a good thing. We are commanded in Romans 12:11 to “never be lacking in spiritual fervour.” The solution is to make sure that our theology is biblically robust enough to handle our passions.

Are you a passionate follower of Jesus Christ? Then work hard to make sure that your passion is firmly grounded in the Bible.

How do we do that? Stay tuned for the next post.

 

Can you be a churchless Christian?

No.

Let me explain.

Normally when you hear this question, the answer goes something like this:

“Yes you can be a Christian and not go to church because being a Christian is not about religion but about having a relationship with Jesus. You don’t have to earn your relationship with Jesus, he gives it to you as a free gift. So technically you can b​e a Christian but you really should go to church.”

This explanation is usually followed up by an illustration of how lumps of coal, when plucked from the fire, grow cool or how sticks, when bundles together, are stronger.

These sentiments, although a bit cliché, are nevertheless true. However, they can also distort our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

WHAT IS A CHRISTIAN?

First of all, the phrase “relationship with Jesus” is misleading because everyone has a relationship with Jesus. Not all relationships are healthy or positive. Some people may have a relationship with Jesus Christ as their enemy but they still have a relationship with him, and even a personal one.

The question we need to ask isn’t so much whether or not we have a relationship with Jesus but what kind of relationship with Him is unique to the Christian?”

The briefest summary I can think of is that a Christian is someone who relates to Jesus Christ as their King, Saviour, and Treasure.

If Jesus is our King, who commands us and leads us, then that would show itself in our lives through and attitude of obedience. If we truly understand that Jesus has saved us from our sins then gratitude and repentance will be present. If we have come to see that knowing Christ renders all else rubbish in comparison then we will long to walk closely with him and grow in our knowledge of him.

Putting aside for a moment the handful of exceptional circumstances where joining a church is simply not possible (such as being stranded alone on a desert island), let us look at what makes it so difficult to reconcile “churchless Christianity” with the Bible.

It begins with the way we think of our churches.

WHAT IS A LOCAL CHURCH?

A local church is not simply the collective noun for a group of Christians: A swarm of bees, a school of fish, a church of Christians…

If two or three Christians go play golf together they are not a church.

Rather, a church is the gathering together of Christians in Jesus’ name in order to worship God and encourage one another through the ministry of the Word.

There is more to say on this about elders, discipline and the sacraments, but for now, I merely want to point out that by “church” the Bible does not mean a trip to the local coffee shop, cinema or football game with another Christian.

So how does this definition of church affect our claim to follow Jesus?

OBEDIENCE TO OUR KING

Can we really claim to have sworn obedience to our King and yet disobey his clear instruction that we should not give up meeting together?

All of us fail in our obedience and trust in his grace to forgive us. That is a very different to constantly and deliberately ignoring his explicit commands without repentance.

This is not to mention the many implicit problems churchlessness creates for our claims of obedience. The commands to love one another, submit to the elders, participate in the Lord’s Supper together are all placed in jeopardy by our simple refusal to commit to a local church family.

TRUST IN OUR SAVIOUR

Likewise, can we really claim to have put our trust in Jesus to save us if we do not love to join together with the church?

Jesus not only reconciled us to God but to one another as well. To be saved is to be brought into the Body of Christ by the blood of Christ. Ignoring the local Body of believers, and yet claiming to believe that Jesus saved you, makes little sense when one considers that the church is what we have been saved for.

LOVE FOR OUR TREASURE

Jesus told his disciples that whenever two or more gathered in his name (local church), he would be with them. Jesus is especially present with his people when they are gathered together, just as he is present among the lampstands in Revelation.

If I claim to love Jesus why on earth would I not want to be where he is? If I love Jesus then my place is with his people who gather in his name. If I have no interest in being in His presence with His people…well, it doesn’t sound right does it.

My favourite resources for family worship.

Family worship and discipleship is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently.

As my children grow up, they are becoming more and more aware that following Jesus is really important to mum and dad. They are also are becoming more and more aware that most of their friends (and their parents) don’t follow Jesus and believe the same things that mum and dad do. This has led to some very interesting conversations after school and around the dinner table. These conversations, however, are mostly few and far between and I am constantly aware that I need to be far more deliberate in the way I prepare my children to live as exiles and strangers in a fallen world.

Trial and error has been the name of the game. Ultimately the only way to find out what works best for your household is to try different things and stick at them long enough to develop a routine.

Liz and I have tried quite a few different resources over the years and some have stood out very clearly above the others. Here are my top five resources for family worship and discipleship.

CHILDREN’S BIBLES

The-Beginners-Bible-for-Toddlers1. The Beginners Bible For Toddlers

This has been by far the best option for our children when they were younger and remains a favourite to this day. It has been a pleasant surprise at every turn, showing great skill and insight in simplifying bible passages whilst also remaining faithful. The chapters are a perfect length for holding the attention of little minds.

2. The Big Picture Story Bible275-545-2

This is suitable for older toddlers and features great artwork. It is based on the biblical theology of Graeme Goldsworthy and is great for teaching your children about how the Bible fits together. It’s more than a Bible overview. It’s an exposition of the Bible’s overarching storyline. I recommend it for adults and children alike as an introduction to biblical theology.

61U4WWGzkcL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_3. The Jesus Storybook Bible

This is a little more in-depth than the others and the sections are slightly longer so it didn’t really work for us until our oldest children were 4-5 years old. Now they really love it. It is also fantastic for showing how the Old Testament characters point to Jesus.

OTHER BOOKS

4. Everything a Child Should Know About God9781909611627

We call this the “Breakfast Bible” in our house. Well we used to. It’s not a Bible so that nickname was slightly misleading and we have momentarily misplaced it. It got the nickname because we left it on our table in the kitchen where we have breakfast so that we could look at it over a bowl of Honey-Nut Crunch. It doesn’t take long and the kid’s love it which made it the perfect resource for our chaotic morning routine.

MUSIC

00007495915. Colin Buchanan

My son, who was about 4 at the time watched the “God Rocks” dvd for about 8 hours straight in the car on our journey from London to the south of France. This trend continued through the holiday and the return journey. I’m not kidding. Even now, years later, he is downstairs listening to the new easter album “Boss of the Cross” and singing along. It’s just awesome.

If there are other resource that you think should be on this list then I would love to hear about it.

 

Save me from my enemies?

Psalm 3 English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.

Lord, how many are my foes!
    Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
    there is no salvation for him in God. Selah
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
    my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the Lord,
    and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
    I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
    who have set themselves against me all round.
Arise, O Lord!
    Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
    you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
    your blessing be on your people! Selah

David was going through a rough time. His own son sought to depose him from the throne and even murder him. That cannot be easy.  Understandably, even admirably, he cries out to God for salvation from his enemies.

But how many Christians, in the West at least, would say that they have “enemies”? Should Christians even have enemies?

Given that this comes up in the Psalms pretty often I thought should probably think it through otherwise I’m going to have these questions assaulting me every morning.

So here are a few enemies that every Christian will encounter in their sojourn through this life.

Enemy 1: The World

The “world” is the word used by the Bible to describe humanity in its rebellion against God. It is the current of human culture moving away from God toward all kinds of evil. It is hard to swim against the current all the time. Sometimes we may experience this in general ways. For example, we may struggle against temptation to indulge in pornography or to believe that science is more trustworthy than God’s Word. Sometimes the enemy of the world takes a more personal form: a work colleague who openly ridicules your faith; a friend who begins to hate you because you cannot condone their actions; an extremist who threatens you and your family because you are a Christian; a senseless act of crime that leaves you reeling in shock.

Enemy 2: Your Sinful Nature

The ever-present enemy for Christians is the enemy within. Our own sinful nature is what makes the world tempting to us in the first place. But it doesn’t leave us alone when we come home from work or switch off the computer. It is an incessant urging within us to disobey God and act selfishly.

Enemy 3: The Devil

Satan and demons are still a reality in our world. I know it seems silly to believe in that these days but if we begin to buy into that then we are in real trouble. The devil is real and so is the threat he presents to health of Christians. True, he will not triumph in the end. True, he is under God’s authority even now. But he is still a prowling lion ready to devour.

Enemy 4: Other Christians

What struck me about this Psalm is that the enemy in David’s mind was not worldliness, or Satan or even his own sin. Rather His enemy was his son Absalom, who was his own family and even his own faith. To use the contemporary equivalent, Absalom went to church with David.

The influence of the world, the sinful nature and the devil on Christians means that from time to time we will be opposed in our lives and faith by other believers. It may be because they are not truly born again. It may be that they are true Christians behaving sinfully. Most of the time, these are the enemies that hurt us most.

And yes, it means that you and I are not immune to the possibility of being the enemy either.

Cry Out to God for Salvation

If you’re a little overwhelmed at the prospect of all of these foes then hopefully you will also see how wonderfully relevant this prayer is to all of us. The only one who can save us from these enemies is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God’s sustaining power and protection alone can give us peace in the face of those who oppose us and seek to harm us. This is especially true for believers living on this side of the cross because we have seen God’s triumph over his enemies through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Salvation, from beginning to end, belongs to the Lord. Cry out to Him.