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Sons

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Sons are hard. At least, I find it so with my son. My daughter is easier, for all of her fiery red-headed temper and die-on-every-hill determination. I share her stubbornness, and she is also much like my wife. I have decades of experience navigating those waters! Perhaps more to the point, because she is female, she is so different from me that I have no trouble drawing boundaries between us.

That's not true with Marky. He is so much like me that at times I feel like an outside observer looking at myself. He has the same hair, the same smile, the same dry wit. When he flops his ever-lankier body down on the couch, I feel the same movements in my muscles and bones. He is my son, and he could be no one else’s.

Perhaps I deceive myself, but I see so much potential in him. He is capable of both great compassion and great insight. When called on to care for me, he does so with attentiveness and discretion, like a highly trained servant. In Tennessee, his best friend had a peanut allergy, so he resolved never to eat peanut butter—not even in peanut butter cups!—for fear of cross-contamination. Though he has not obeyed the gospel, he spent part of the worship service yesterday writing a page-long meditation about how God's goodness proves His existence.

And yet, he remains an 11-year-old boy. He inherited my mouth but not my 30 extra years of experience in learning how to control it. He frequently puts on displays of great cleverness ungoverned by sound judgment or good sense. He avoids hard work with the same diligence with which he avoids brushing his teeth.

I see these things, and it makes me afraid for him. My father taught me so much through boyhood and early adulthood, but I know that Marky will go through his teenage years without me. It is my single greatest grief about dying. What if he never learns to apply himself? What if he wastes his potential in self-indulgence and self-pity?

I pray for him often, more than I pray for my own health. I also catch myself trying to compress 15 years’ worth of instruction into two. Some of this is harmless. He doesn't need my dating advice now, but he might remember some of it when he does.

Some of it isn't. It drives me around the bend when I see him slacking, and I let him know about that. Loudly. At length. I do the same when he pulls one of his stunts despite having been warned about the consequences if he did.

That hurts him. He finds his failure so difficult to contemplate that he shuts down emotionally, which I intuitively understand as a refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing. Sometimes I recognize what's happening and pull back; sometimes not.

The problem, though, goes deeper than a shortage of parenting time. Yesterday, I was talking with one of my oldest friends, someone who has known me since I wasn't much older than Marky. Marky ran up to my chair, grinned, and began scowling and grimacing theatrically while inches away from my face. I shooed him away and remarked ruefully to my friend, “He’s my son, all right.”

“Yes,” she replied. “Isn't it wonderful?”

Ouch.

My son problem, you see, isn't really a son problem. It's a me problem. My hard line on hard work reflects my own pathological fear of being thought lazy. When I rebuke his foolish cleverness, I am condemning my own, for I am often more clever than wise. Because he is so much like me, he receives the same savage, intolerant criticism that I lavish on myself.

To be the father he needs, first I must quell that internal critic. My son is far from perfect, but so was I, and so am I. Despite my anxious striving to do right, my only hope for perfection is not self-correction, but grace. Only as I accept that can I accept him.

This ability to accept and extend grace is one of the most vital parenting attributes. It’s not the same thing as indulgence or neglect, for grace can only exist in the presence of wrongdoing. Instead, it is the acknowledgement of humanness in both our children and ourselves.

I suspect that if I am driven by fear and self-loathing to withhold grace from my son, I will make him into precisely what I fear he will become. Rather, I must reconcile myself to where he is, setting standards but leaving room for growth and trusting him to grow, even if I won't be around to see it.

Stillness of soul is hard for me when it comes to him. I suspect it is hard for all good parents because we care so desperately. However, no matter how much we care, we cannot control our children. We can guide, but it's up to them to find the good way and walk in it themselves.

The Passover Lamb and Baptism

Monday, September 19, 2022

The story of the first Passover is familiar to most of us. In Exodus 12, Moses instructs the Israelites to take an unblemished male lamb, slaughter it, eat it as part of a ritual meal, and apply its blood to the doorposts and lintels of their houses.

This strange ceremony had a vital purpose. God was going to send a destroying angel throughout the land of Egypt, and he would kill the firstborn of both men and animals in each house. The angel would pass over only the houses that were marked with blood.

There are several elements to this story that are worth noting. The first is that the coming catastrophe would be universal. God did not single out the firstborn of the Egyptians for doom. Instead, unless some action were taken, every house would be visited by the destroyer.

God did not intend for His people to face this destruction. However, He did not automatically spare them either. Instead, He gave them instructions that, if followed, would turn aside the destroyer. If the Israelites did not follow those instructions, their firstborn would perish along with those of the Egyptians.

Following those instructions had no intrinsic merit. The destroyer did not approach the houses of the Israelites and say, “Wow! I am so impressed with the artistic application of that blood! I could never destroy the firstborn of such gifted people!” The blood was effective for only one reason, because God had decreed that it would be. Even though the Israelites had to act, they still were saved not by their actions, but by His mercy.

All of these things are true of baptism under the covenant of Christ. We too are faced with universal catastrophe. On the day of judgment, the condemnation of God will not be limited only to Hitler and the other really, really bad people. Instead, every sinner will face it, and all of us have sinned. Unless we act, all of us are headed to the fires of hell.

God desires not to destroy us but to save us. However, salvation does not come automatically. As He did for the Israelites, He has given us instructions that we must follow. The Scriptures teach that we are forgiven of our sins when we are immersed in water in the name of Jesus. Unless we are baptized, we will perish.

Like the blood on the doorposts, baptism has no intrinsic merit. It is not a good work that convinces God that we deserve eternal life. Rather, baptism saves only because God has said that it saves. As with belief, repentance, and confession, it is one of the conditions that we must fulfill before God will extend His mercy. We are rescued not by magic water, but by a gracious Creator.

We understand how foolish it would have been for the Israelites to refuse to apply the blood yet loudly proclaim their confidence that God would save them. Sadly, millions today make the same mistake with baptism, and if we follow their example, we will lose our souls.

However, if we act in faith as the Israelites did, we too will be rescued by the mercy of God. How marvelous it is that He has provided so great a salvation for us, and how tragic it would be for any of us to reject it!

Salvation by Grace

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Recently, I have become an even louder proponent of grace, indeed of the naked necessity of grace, than I ever was before. I can tell from the comments I've been getting on social media that this has made some good brethren nervous. They reply with variations of, “Yes, but you have to do something.” In light of this, I thought it would be useful to explain my thoughts more fully.

Every day, I am confronted with the reality that in the next couple of years, I will die. The Bible tells me that I should be confident in the face of death, that I should contemplate the end of my life with hope rather than fear or despair.

If so, that hope can have only one basis, and I am not it. I know myself too well. I believe that I am a better man than I have ever been before, but I also see more clearly the immense gap between my righteousness and the righteousness of Christ. If I have to be good enough, I assuredly have not been.

I have not been diligent enough. I have not been wise enough. I have not been holy enough. I have not been loving enough. In these and so many other areas, I see no cause for confidence in my own merit, yet I am to be confident.

Such confidence can only come from putting my trust in the grace of the Lord. It is so great that I no longer need to fret over to the sufficiency of my own goodness. Whether that goodness be little or much, His grace is sufficient.

So far, I know that I have said little to settle the nerves of my concerned readers! If indeed we rely on the grace of Christ because we can make no meaningful contribution to our own salvation, doesn't that lead to an apathetic, do-nothing faith that is unconcerned with sin because God is just going to slosh a bucket of grace all over it?

In the first place, I acknowledge that this is not merely a hypothetical. There are millions, both in the Lord's church and outside of it, who treat the grace that they imagine they have received as a license to be worldly. Second, though, the question was answered 2000 years ago in Romans 6.

Too often, we go to Romans 6 to find support for our beliefs about baptism but fail to reckon with the argument that the chapter makes. According to Paul, grace does not release us from the need to do anything. Instead, it puts us under obligation. We are freed from sin, but we become slaves of righteousness.

If we truly understand ourselves in this way, the notion of being do-nothing Christians is laughable. Admittedly, earthly slaves are not known for diligence, but even they will work hard when under the eyes of their masters. We can never escape the supervision of our Master.

We must consider ourselves as having no self-will left in the things of the spirit because we have wholly given over that will to Jesus. We don't even have standing to ask how much or how little we should give and whether it will be good enough. We already have signed over everything.

This dovetails with James’s discussion of justification by works in James 2. Biblical scholars have pitted Paul and James against each other for hundreds of years. However, they should have noted that James didn't merely cite Abraham, one of the most illustrious figures of the Old Testament, as an example of justification by works. He also chose Rahab.

I've watched Bible classes struggle with Rahab for years. How could God exalt a prostitute who helped the Israelites by lying??? However, that's not a difficulty with the text. It's the point. We only become confused when we refuse to class ourselves with Rahab.

Rahab did not justify herself by being good enough. She justified herself through the action that is inseparable from genuine faith. Instead of continuing on to destruction with the people of Jericho, she cast her lot with the people of God.

It is the same with us. If her service was tainted by lying, how much more is our service tainted by envy, pride, carelessness, indifference, and lack of love! All of us are in the business of offering blemished sacrifices. Nonetheless, like Rahab, we serve anyway. We too have cast our lot with the people of God and are justified in His sight.

The grace of the Bible is not a blank check that allows us to sin all the more. It is a demand that we put to death the old man of sin. None of us will ever succeed in so doing. None of us will ever come close.

However, our souls do not depend on our success or failure. The same grace that asks for everything offers everything too, so that we may rest our hope not on ourselves but on the salvation available only through Christ.

The Bible

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

This is the last time that I will ever stand before this congregation and preach a sermon. I regret this deeply; it is not how I would have planned things at all. However, I am driven to it by my ill health and the needs of my family.

This morning, then, I must finish the trio of sermons about the core attributes of the Jackson Heights church. The first was kindness, the second was unity, and the third is love of the Bible. This is a congregation that loves the word of God, and from that, everything else follows.

Thus, it's appropriate for me to begin this farewell sermon with words from another farewell sermon, Paul's address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. In verse 32 he commends them to God and the word of His grace, which is able to build them up and give them an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. Today, we're going to use that as an outline to discuss what is most important about the Bible.

The first significant idea in this passage is that the Bible is the word of the grace of God. There are many passages that we could use to illustrate what this means, but one of them is Ephesians 2:1-7. We were dead in our sins, but the grace of God made us alive again together with Christ.

Grace is what is truly unique about our faith. Certainly, the New Testament sets forth a wonderful system of ethics, but there are other systems of ethics out there. Even the people in our society who celebrate sin and call evil good have an ethical code. That's why they mob people on social media who violate it!

Standards of right and wrong are universal. However, only Christianity has strong standards accompanied by forgiveness for violating those standards. God hates our sin! In fact, He hates it so much that only the blood of His only begotten Son could wash it away.

Who could imagine such a thing, that an all-powerful God would love us enough to redeem us at such a terrible cost! That's grace. I've heard about it every Sunday all my life, but I still can't comprehend it.

This is the gospel we proclaim, not the gospel of the laws that condemn us, but the gospel of the grace that saves us. However, I'm afraid that some Christians are under the impression that grace evaporates along with the water after you're baptized. God saved us once, but now we'd better get all our ducks in a row!

Not so. How foolish would God have to be, to go to all that work of saving us while expecting our hapless selves to get things right thereafter! Every day of our lives, we remain in need of grace, and the great message of the Bible is that God will provide it.

Second, Paul tells us that the word of grace is able to build us up. The passage that best explains how this works is a familiar one, 2 Timothy 3:16-17. To some, my citation of this text might seem to contradict what I just said about grace, but really, grace and obedience are two halves of the same whole.

When we understand the richness and magnificence of God’s salvation, how could we possibly keep on doing the same thing that we've been doing? I want to spend every day of my life being pleasing to God because it's the least I could do after all He's done for me. Of course, none of my paltry acts of service are worthy to be compared to salvation, but I still have to try. The problem with people who don't try is not that they don't understand law. It's that they don't understand grace.

For those who do understand grace, for those who are determined to please and glorify their Savior, this text provides a road map. As is the case with many lists in Scripture, the first item in this list is not really an item. It's a subject heading. Paul tells us that the Scriptures were profitable for teaching, and then he explains how they teach.

I like to think of this as a spiritual U-turn. When we're going the wrong way, the Scriptures rebuke us. They yell, “Stop!” Next, they correct us. They say, “Try this way instead.” Once we're going the right way, they train us. They say, “Here's how to do this better.” Through them, we can get all of the spiritual instruction we need.

However, here we encounter one of the great spiritual dangers for religious people, self-righteousness. Rather than coming to the Bible to look for the spiritual U-turns that we need to make, we come to it looking for the spiritual U-turns that others need to make. We hear or read a passage, and we think of somebody who really needs to listen, and that somebody isn't us. Then, we sit around complaining to our self-righteous friends about how those other people just don't get it.

It's true that we do have a spiritual duty to warn and admonish others. However, that's not the goal of self-righteousness. Most self-righteous people will never have a difficult conversation with someone they think is in sin because having that conversation takes love instead of contempt. Self-righteousness is all about diverting our attention from our own imperfections so that we can boast in ourselves instead of in God.

Instead, our primary application of Scripture, especially when it comes to rebuking and correcting, must always be to ourselves. It is able to build us up, not somebody else. When we come across as humble servants rather than self-righteous judges, that's when we're able to influence others’ lives for good.

Finally, the word of God's grace is able to give us an inheritance. Here, let's consider 1 Peter 1:3-7. As Peter's words here make clear, being a Christian is not about fulfillment in this life. Sometimes, even the most faithful face great suffering. We see this repeatedly in Scripture, from Jesus on down.

What keeps us going is God's promise of a reward. The Bible isn't like one of those scammy emails from a Nigerian prince who promises you millions but will leave you with an empty bank account. Instead, our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and kept in heaven. This is why we keep going through those trials, long after worldly people would have quit. What is waiting for us will be worth it.

The key to obtaining this inheritance is the word of God. There are lots of other books about religion out there. None of them hold the secret of eternal life. There are lots of religious scholars and religious experts. None of them are the way to eternal fellowship with God. Even I will not help you at all if I stray from what God has revealed.

All we need is the book that we hold in our hands or have stored on our phones. God has given us His inspired word, and He has given everyone who needs to understand it the ability to understand. It's all right here, His precious gift to ordinary people who want to seek Him and find Him.

There is no such thing as too much Bible. The more we read and study it, the more it will teach us, convict us, and inspire us. Every assembly of the Jackson Heights church is precious because every one is an opportunity to learn more about the Bible. Sometimes, we sing a hymn entitled “When We All Get to Heaven”. If all of us steadfastly seek God according to His word, and then all of us will.

Gathered to His People

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Throughout the Pentateuch, a formula is used to mark the deaths of the godly. It says that So-and-So “was gathered to his people”. Now that I know my own time is approaching, I find myself reflecting on the people to whom I will be gathered.

The list begins with my parents. My father was faithful in all his house as a servant, and he loved to study the Bible more than anything else. To the end of my days, my most central memory of him will be coming down the stairs after school and finding him seated in his old blue recliner, his Bible open in his lap and a stack of Bible helps on the floor next to the chair.

My mother's Bible saw just as much use, even though she took much better care of it. She too lived out her faith, especially in her care for the vulnerable and downtrodden. She volunteered for suicide hotlines. She worked in food banks. She went to trailer parks to teach women to read so she could teach them the Bible. The quietest and most overlooked woman where she went to church was guaranteed one friend, and it would be my mother.

My father’s father was a Christian too. He was nicknamed “Pat” because in his youth he loved to tell tall tales, drink, and fight like the stereotypical Irishman. In maturity, though, he assembled faithfully in the church building down the gravel road from his farm. When it was built, he mixed all the cement in the foundation by hand. Four of his six children will be joining him in his reward.

My grandmother was the biggest reason he settled down. She was a full-blooded Polish Catholic off the boat who met him by chance in Chicago. My mother said she was one of the meekest women imaginable.

My grandparents were married by a gospel preacher because the priest demanded money, but the preacher would do it for free. That won her loyalty and her attendance at services. Both of them were baptized one Lord’s day because she dragged her husband down the aisle with her.

Beyond that, my great-grandfather also was a Christian. He was the son of a Methodist preacher and was brought into the Lord's church by his wife. I suppose her relatives also were Christians, though I don't know anything about them.

Similar tales could be told about my ancestors on my mother's side. Her mother was a disciple too. In my mother's youth, they worshiped at the local Christian Church because it was the only one within walking distance. However, my grandmother knew that it wasn't right to use the instrument in worship and told my mother so. Along some branches of that part of the family tree, I can find members of the Lord’s church practically back to the Restoration.

I have always felt a tremendous responsibility to live up to my family. When the true faith has been so faithfully handed down from generation to generation, how could I be the one to break the chain? I have never met most of these people, but I think they will receive me gladly.

I know, though, that most brethren can't say the same. What if your dad was an alcoholic who beat you black and blue? What if your mom was bipolar and committed adultery with every willing man in town? What if your family tree is filled with child molesters, thieves, and drug addicts?

If you are faithful to Christ, the good news is that your people aren't your people. Instead, your true people are the people of God. Your spiritual family tree starts with Abraham and includes millennia of forgotten men and women who spent their lives quietly seeking the Lord and doing what was right. None of them were perfect, but all of them have been counted righteous.

These are all your people, and I and mine are your people too. We may not share earthly ties of blood, but we are bound together by the blood of Christ. Like the patriarchs of old, we will be gathered to them, and by the grace of God, all of us will be welcomed to a seat at the table.

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