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Our society forgets about aborted babies. We Christians cannot forget them too.
It is all too easy to forget about aborted babies. It is all too easy to forget faces we never see and little ones we never hold. We don’t witness viral videos of preborn babies being killed as they squirm helpless. We don’t see little caskets lined up for their little bodies.
Their deaths are hidden, and their deaths are often forgotten.
Over the last several months of COVID-19, we have remembered the oldest among us, but have we forgotten about the youngest among us? As we remember perceived police brutality against black people, have we forgotten Planned Parenthood’s brutality against (black) babies?
Even as politicians attempt to protect vulnerable people from the coronavirus, they label abortion against vulnerable preborn babies an essential service. And even as Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups protest, and riots break out, against perceived police brutality against black Americans, many also defend abortion against (black) babies.
Preborn babies cannot socially distance themselves from Planned Parenthood. They cannot beg parents and abortionists to stop killing them — they can’t speak yet. And they cannot march for their lives — they can’t walk yet.
Preborn babies need me and you to speak for them. They need me and you to march for them. They need us to remember them. But how many of us, who know these children to be precious in the sight of God, have forgotten about them?
Aborted babies are not just victims of Planned Parenthood; they are also victims of our priorities. Are many of us bothered enough that we live in a culture that celebrates the mass murder of preborn babies? Abortion is the greatest systemic injustice in the world today, but its victims are the most forgotten members in the world today.
Many of us, understandably, remember the names of unarmed black people who died after encounters with police officers this year — especially George Floyd. But how many times have we really stopped to consider that it’s illegal to murder George Floyd, but it’s legal to murder preborn George Floyds. And it happens over 800,000 times a year in the United States.
Since George Floyd’s death 169 days ago, over 400,000 babies have died by abortion. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, almost 60 million babies have been aborted in America. That is the equivalent of the population of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Arkansas — combined.
The most pervasive and horrific systemic injustice in our culture shouldn’t receive the least attention. We Christians should be more committed to saving babies than Planned Parenthood is to killing them.
Have you considered the means of execution for these babies recently? Abortion crushes the baby’s head. It rips them apart, limb by limb. And this unthinkable horror happens nearly a million times a year in America alone. What are we doing about it?
Our God says,
Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work? (Proverbs 24:11–12)
Thousands of preborn babies are taken away to death every day. What are we doing to protect babies from being taken to the slaughter? What are we doing to remember the forgotten? What should we do about it?
We should pray for vulnerable preborn babies and their parents. We should pray for abortionists and abortion advocates — we should pray that God would compel them to repent and relent of their sins. We should pray that God would raise up more men and women with a deep hatred for abortion and a deeper love for babies, men and women who will commit their lives to establishing justice for preborn babies (Amos 5:15).
And remember, as we ask God to raise up more pro-life advocates, we might be praying for ourselves. Consider committing yourself to pro-life advocacy. The pro-life movement desperately needs more Christians — preborn babies desperately need more Christians speaking for them. Consider becoming a full-time pro-life advocate, or consider becoming a volunteer at a pro-life organization.
Now, not many of us are in a position to commit to working or volunteering at a pro-life organization full-time. If possible, we should consider financially supporting pro-life advocates. Preborn babies need pro-life advocates, and pro-life advocates need financial support.
God doesn’t forget about preborn babies, and as his people we cannot forget about them either.
Does God harden sinners’ hearts only in response to their persistent sin, or is their sin a result of his prior hardening?
We all walk through this fallen world on streets of shattered promises. Believer or unbeliever, wealthy or poor, young or old, few, if any, remain exempt. For some, a father vowed much but was present little. For others, a trusted friend finally retreated from you in the hour of need. For still others, an unfaithful wife deserted, leaving the serrated memory of her empty vow, “’til death do us part.” We know what it is to expose our hearts and feel them bleed.
If our enemies dealt roughly with us, we could bear it (Psalm 55:12). But when the culprit is our familiar friend, the knife goes deeper. In response, some choose to mummify their hearts rather than risk further injury. They know exactly what C.S. Lewis meant when he wrote,
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. (The Four Loves, 155–56)
You may have loved and lost and vowed never to love again. You keep outside of rifle range — both of love and of anguish. You will not, cannot, go through that again.
And you have changed. Scales have grown. You forget the sound of your own laugh. You’ve set your affections on small things and sealed your heart in the motionless, airless, safe, dark coffin until only a stone remains. A victim to great loves now dead, what can be said to convince you to live again?
What can be said is that there exists a love so momentous, so steadfast, so piercing that it threatens — even now — to flood your lungs with air, shine light into your hiding place, and invade that selfish vault with a warmth long forgotten: hope. This love threatens to break through the deadbolt to overwhelm with life and to replace the stony heart with a beating one — as it has done for so many before. It threatens to enthrone itself — himself — to capture our being entirely and send us out to live (and be hurt) again with newfound delight.
This love does not dismiss but rather overcomes the real pain we feel, the real scars we bear, the real sins we’ve endured — as well as the real sins we have committed. We needed a Savior, a Redeemer, a Husband to save us and covenant himself to never forsake us because of our sin against him.
And hope against hope, he came. In a world of human loves that fall short, it was written of a man fully God: having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Through painful discovery, many of our loves have been weighed and found wanting. Behold something different.
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (John 13:1)
Jesus knew his hour had come. He knew what lay before him. He knew the horror ahead of time. He knew Isaiah 53 well. To date, he had escaped stones flying at him and crowds wanting to throw him off the cliff. But now nails, whips, mockery, shame — and his Father’s wrath — lay before him. His would not prove to be a spontaneous act of love, casting him into an unknown darkness he hadn’t fully considered. The cost of this love was premeditated, foreseen, foretold — even by himself.
And what a description John gives of Jesus’s brutal death — his departing “out of this world to the Father.” As John recalls that night, his pen moves in summary: “Having loved his own . . . he loved them to the end.” He loved them in teaching, revealing, healing, caring, and correcting. He loved them perfectly every second he was with them. And having begun loving them (before the foundation of the world), he would love them to the end — even to such an end.
He did not love them ninety percent of the way. He did not forsake; he did not falter. His promise of faithfulness to his spouse — then and now — was not to death but through it. His love for his people — a love likened to his Father’s love for him (John 15:9) — did not stop short but propelled him through the darkest day in history. The whips did not touch this love. The nails did not pierce it. His heart toward his people remained the only part of him unscarred.
And this love meets stony, unbreakable, impenetrable hearts today and replaces them. It meets rebellious, wounded, bleeding hearts and remakes them. It takes motionless hearts and makes them pulse with heavenly life.
Do you know the love of God? Have you repented and believed the good news that Christ died and rose so that the guilty might live forever with him as his beloved? Come thirsty. Come poor. Come in your mess. If we were him, we would not bear the wrath of God for us, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:7–8).
Do we tell others of this love of Christ that has so beautifully captured us (2 Corinthians 2:14) and now controls us (2 Corinthians 5:14), gripping us with bonds that neither tribulation nor distress nor nakedness nor famine nor danger nor sword can break (Romans 8:35)?
Those of us who espouse Reformed theology must be especially warm on this point. Charles Spurgeon truly said,
Those who hear the Calvinistic preacher, are very apt to misrepresent God. . . . Many of our hearers, even through our assertions, when most guarded, are apt to get rather a caricature of God, than a true picture of him. They imagine that God is a severe being, angry and fierce, very easily to be moved to wrath, but not so easily to be induced to love.
Easily moved to wrath. Not easily induced to love. Is this the impression we give? Is this the impression we are tempted to believe ourselves?
Our big God possesses an unimaginably big heart toward sinners. He is incomparable in grandeur and incomparable in love. Christ was betrayed but did not betray, was forsaken while refusing to forsake, was abandoned to die, that his people might be where he is, forever. The love of his disciples shrunk and grew cold at the same hour when his blazed the warmest and glowed the fiercest.
His love can be trusted; his love endures till the end.
In this life, we will have trouble. But every trial paves the way to an inheritance with Christ that will satisfy us forever.
Election is a topic currently absorbing the attention of Americans (and a watching world), given the significant political event about to take place in the United States. In our democratic republic, qualified citizens cast free and secret ballots to elect those we wish to represent us in our executive and legislative branches of state and national government.
This is an example of conditional election, meaning the “elect” are chosen based on their superior merits relative to opposing candidates. The elect merit or win their election.
In this sense (and others, of course), the American doctrine of election is quite different from the biblical doctrine of election. Whenever the term election or elect is mentioned in Scripture, it always refers to God’s choosing those he has purposed to redeem from fallen humanity. God does the choosing — the electing — not man (Ephesians 1:3–6). And when God chooses to redeem a person, he does so based not on that person’s merit, but on his mercy alone (Romans 9:10–16).
Theologians have termed this unconditional election, which John Piper concisely defines as “God’s free choice before creation, not based on foreseen faith, to which traitors he will grant faith and repentance, pardoning them and adopting them into his everlasting family of joy.” In this case, the elect do not merit or win their election, but receive it as a free gift from God based solely on his grace toward them (Ephesians 2:8–10).
Many over the centuries have found the biblical doctrine of election a source of great hope and comfort. But many others have found it a source of confusion, anxiety, and even offense. God means for us to experience the former, not the latter. He has revealed election in Scripture not so we will comprehend all its mysteries, nor so we can easily identify all who are elect, but so we will put our full confidence and trust in Jesus Christ and find him our all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).
Scripture’s revelation regarding election is clear: God “chose us [in Christ] before the foundation of the world” and “predestined us for adoption to himself . . . according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:4–6). If there’s any question as to the unconditional nature of this election, all we need to do is follow the apostle Paul’s logic in Romans chapter 9.
But Scripture does not reveal the mechanics of election. The Bible tells us God is completely sovereign and free in his choosing those to whom he will and will not grant the gift of repentance and saving faith (Romans 9:15–16), and that humans are morally accountable if they do not repent and trust Christ (John 3:18). But the formula for how this works is a mystery known to God alone.
In an American political (conditional) election, mystery surrounding the results could signal a corrupted process. The founders of our nation had a healthy respect for human depravity and designed the American systems of government with that in mind. They wisely devised many forms of accountability in order to mitigate the myriad forms of corruption that inevitably occur whenever humans pursue and possess power. That’s why American elections should be as transparent and unmysterious as possible.
But with divine election, the opposite is true. In this case, mystery is a great mercy to us for at least two reasons.
First, we simply do not possess the intellectual or perspectival capacities to comprehend God’s purposes in election. As Michael Horton says,
All of the great truths of God’s Word are mysteries in this sense. They elude our ability to capture their essence. They do not contradict reason, but transcend it. (For Calvinism, 111)
Second, and even more important, as fallen, depraved creatures who tend to corrupt election processes we do comprehend, we lack the moral capacities to be entrusted with such knowledge. Our great downfall was desiring and aspiring to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). We must trust God’s wisdom and kindness when he withholds information from us. This is why John Calvin gave this wise pastoral warning against probing the mysteries of election:
[The curious] will obtain no satisfaction to his curiosity, but will enter a labyrinth from which he will find no way to depart. For it is unreasonable that man should scrutinize with impunity those things which the Lord has determined to be hidden in himself. . . . As soon as the Lord closes his sacred mouth, [we] shall also desist from further inquiry. (For Calvinism, 113)
The wise will say with Moses, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29). For the wise understand that God is merciful not to tell us everything.
After the voting deadline for next week’s national elections has passed, determining the “elect” hopefully will be fairly straightforward. The ballots will be painstakingly collected and counted, and the candidates who receive the majority of their citizens’ votes will be publicly declared the winners (unless, as in 2016, the electoral college presidential vote totals differ from the popular vote totals).
Once again, this is very different from how God reveals his (unconditionally) elect children whom, through Christ, he has ransomed and redeemed “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Jesus described his method with a parable:
“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Luke 8:5–8)
God calls out his elect through the indiscriminate broadcasting of gospel “seeds.” He makes his appeal to all through us, the messengers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:20). Those planted in good soil, those with seed that takes root, those who have ears to hear, they prove to be the elect.
This parable illustrates not only Jesus’s method, but also our limitations. Both the rocky and thorny soils appear to us as good soil at first. Only later, after faith has been tested (Luke 8:13), or the cares and pleasures of life have choked out what looked like gospel life (Luke 8:14), do we realize that someone may not be elect.
Note my words: “may not be elect.” God does not grant us knowledge of who his elect are in this age. He mercifully hides this knowledge, which is too heavy for us to bear. Some soils can remain path-hardened for eighty years, only to become soft and receive the seed at the end. Other soils can appear good for decades, only to have the stem wither and die from rocks or thorns.
When the apostles assessed the faith of professing Christians, they looked for the evidence of the Spirit, especially faithful enduring of trials (1 Thessalonians 1:4–7), and were quick to encourage what they observed: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge” (1 Corinthians 1:4–5). But if later other evidence gave them concerns, they could say to the same Christians,
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)
One reason they issued such warnings is because they knew the Spirit would use them as a means to keep the elect fighting to persevere in the faith. Exhortations help saints resist “the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12–13).
But at the end of the day, it’s not our job to determine who ultimately is or isn’t the good soil of the elect. That’s God’s job. Our job is to sow gospel seeds or water them, and trust God to give the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).
So, if God veils not only his purposes in election but even the elect themselves in mystery, can we ever be sure that we are among the elect?
God most certainly wants everyone he’s given the right to be called children of God (John 1:12) to live in the holy comfort of knowing they are children of God (Romans 8:16). But he does not want us to seek this comfort in our spiritual gifts, ministry effectiveness, past experiences, or the deceitful labyrinthian corridors of introspection. He wants us to find this comfort by finding Christ our all in all, our very life (Colossians 3:4). Which is why the invitation to assurance Jesus extended to his disciples was this:
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:5–11)
The joy of assurance, Jesus’s very joy in us, comes from one place: abiding (remaining) in him — trusting him solely for the forgiveness of our sins (Colossians 1:14), every grace needed in this age (Hebrews 4:16), and in the age to come, eternal life (Luke 18:30).
This call to abide may sound like it places greater emphasis on our responsibility than on God’s electing power, like conditional election rather than unconditional election. But don’t be fooled. We’re simply experiencing the marvelous mystery that is divine election, the paradoxical place where God’s sovereign decree from eternity past and our call to respond here and now are shown to be, not at odds, but in perfect harmony.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). The elect respond to Jesus’s call to follow him and abide in him. In mercy, God withholds from us mysteries of election we aren’t equipped to grasp, yet he graciously gives us a simple means by which we can find joyful assurance that we belong to and love Jesus: that we willingly respond to and obey him (John 14:15).
Do you hear his voice? Will you follow? “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7).
I certainly understand your concerns about the way some conservatives (who are often Christians, as you point out) have behaved during the worldwide pandemic.
At the same time, I don’t think Christians or conservatives have the corner on folly. All sides are guilty of it, and this whole thing has been downright unnerving. I should point out that a significant part of the problem is that every side often fails to take science seriously, either by underestimating it or overestimating it. As I said in my last letter, I strongly believe we should take science seriously (and I claimed that doing so might not actually be good news for atheism).
But back to your (legitimate) concerns about our current worldwide political polarization and unrest. I think you’re right: it’s not so much that political disagreement is at a new high (though maybe that’s true too). Rather, it’s that the Internet — and social media specifically — has made our political pluralism much more obvious.
Political disagreement, of course, is often moral disagreement. After all, politics isn’t always merely about the means to reaching some already agreed-upon ends. Rather, it’s often about the ends themselves, about our ultimate goals or values, what counts as human flourishing or the good life. And these values are frequently moral values, about right and wrong, good and evil. Humans are bound together primarily by these values — and we’re divided by them just as much.
Now, it sounds like you and I both feel that moral values are matters of objective fact and not merely matters of personal opinion. That is, we have a deep sense that there are correct (and incorrect) answers to moral questions.
Though I agree that morality doesn’t depend on our opinions or tastes, I actually don’t believe that morality is ultimately objective. That is, I think that moral values are fundamentally subjective, and even relative. Here’s why: because at the end of the day, all value — including moral value — depends on a valuer, a person doing the valuing. There is no such thing as value “out there” in the world apart from valuers.
To put it more provocatively, all value is, by its very nature, a matter of opinion or taste.
Take an example. What makes gold valuable? The short answer is that we do. Gold doesn’t have some intrinsic property called “value,” akin to properties like atomic structure. If you were stranded on a desert island, about to die from exposure, thirst, and hunger, and you stumbled upon an old pirate chest full of gold bullion, would you be happy? Probably not. Most likely you’d actually be disappointed with a huge pile of gold. You don’t value the gold; the gold has no value for you, which is just to say that the gold has no value. The value of gold is person-relative, not in the gold itself.
Consider another thought experiment. Imagine that the entire cosmos — all of reality, if that’s different — were nothing but sand. Would there be values in that reality? Would it even make sense to ask whether in that version of reality the sand were valuable? (Try not to implicitly import yourself into the universe while you’re imagining it.)
Now, all this, I think, is just a consequence of what value is, and therefore applies to all value, including moral value. In a universe devoid of persons doing any valuing, there’s nothing valuable — whether of practical value, moral value, or aesthetic value. There is no value because there are no valuers, no persons.
And so, if I’m right, morality is subjective — it depends on the valuing subject, on the person doing the valuing. And just as in the gold case, moral value is not only subjective, but also relative — to the persons doing the valuing.
Morality then is ultimately personal. Or so it seems to me.
Okay, so what? Well, if you’re right that there’s no God — that there’s no divine Person — then there are only human persons (currently around eight billion of them). Therefore, if value is subjective and only relative to persons, then morality is relative to humans only.
But more than that, just as I can’t value something for you, nor you for me, my moral values aren’t strictly speaking yours. Values just aren’t those kinds of things. We each have our own set of moral values; there is no single set. There’s no moral law (singular) but only moral laws (plural) — one for each person.
Of course, my moral standards need not be entirely different from yours. You and I can value many of the same things — we can have similar likes and dislikes, similar loves and hates. We can, for example, both love justice and equality. We value these things. We can also both hate injustice, poverty, and racism. These are things that neither of us values, or better, we negatively value them.
The issue, then, is really about the source and authority of our moral values or standards, of our moral measuring sticks. Why your particular measuring stick? Where’d you get it and why should someone with a different measuring stick change to yours? (I have to answer the same questions.)
Is it because your moral values happen to be shared by the majority of humans? And if so, does the authority of this overarching standard — this “majority rules” standard — come from the fact that the majority holds it too? (You can see where that’s going.) And what if the majority radically changes or evolves, either socially, biologically, or both? Can the majority be wrong, or is “correct” equivalent to “what the majority likes”? Is it like being cool?
Or if the authority of moral standards isn’t ultimately derived from the fact that the majority holds them, is it ultimately derived from the mere fact that those who are in power hold them? Does “might make right”?
But notice that, if there is a God, then the moral standard can be simultaneously subjective and human-independent, and therefore not ultimately subject to the whims of human desires. To be sure, morality would still be ultimately subjective and person-relative, but God would be the Person, the valuing Subject. That is, morality would still be objective in the sense that it’s independent of humans.
Here’s my point. It seems to me that if atheism is true, then at the end of the day anything goes, morally speaking. I’m simply unable to believe that. Among my strongest beliefs are many of my moral beliefs, like believing that rape is wrong regardless of what any of us thinks. And so, along with what I said in my last letter, here’s another thing that keeps me from accepting atheism, despite my sympathies for some of your skepticism.
But if I were an atheist (and please trust me when I say that I’ve very seriously considered this), I would try to refrain from condemning others as immoral, if for no other reason than that I value intellectual consistency. I would still, of course, feel disgust and disapproval over many of the things I currently believe are wrong. But hopefully I would keep reminding myself that it’s just that: a feeling. As the Dude says in The Big Lebowski, “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
I’m always surprised by atheists who are strident about the “evils” of religion. I don’t deny that religion can be the source of all kinds of evils, but again, religion doesn’t have the corner on this. In any case, the atheists I have in mind often pride themselves on being heroic freethinkers, while still appealing to a rather traditional herd morality as if it were somehow binding on others. Or they argue from a kind of “we’re all in this together” sentimentalism. I don’t know whether they’re just naive, but I would be much more likely to listen to their arguments for atheism if I thought they were taking their atheism more seriously. Such atheists exist after all, and I do try to listen carefully to them.
I realize, of course, that there are important questions that I too have to answer, even if — or perhaps especially — if I’m right about the personal nature of morality. For example, why should I adhere to God’s moral standards? Are we back to might makes right? And what makes God’s standard the right one? Is it right simply because he likes it? If so, that seems pretty arbitrary.
My answers to these questions, in fact, bring us to the most important issue of all, that of the meaning of life. My answer is that reality itself is ultimately personal. At least it had better be if we’re going to make sense of the way we’d like to think about right and wrong.
In any event, I look forward to continuing this conversation and hearing your thoughts. If nothing else, it has been helpful for me to try to articulate my own views and get your feedback.
Knowing God is to love God — the real God. If we do not love him, we do not know him.
Temptation often prevails against us because of our simple and naive assumptions about temptation.
We expect temptation will march through the front door, dressed like a wolf, announcing itself loudly as it comes. But temptation often prefers the back door, and the bedroom window, and that crack between the floorboards. Temptation relies on subtlety and nuance, on deception and surprise, on ignorance and naivete. To begin to taste victory, we have to start treating the war like a war. We have to study the enemy of our souls.
We remember the story of Samson and Delilah because she overpowered the strongest man alive. But have we ever stopped to really ask how? How did Delilah subdue a man who had just killed a thousand men? When we unravel the secrets of her seduction, they can become weapons for us against whatever temptation we face.
The first step in taking temptation more seriously is to remember that temptation has a mission: to ruin your soul and rob you of God. No temptation is innocent or trivial. All temptation schemes and plots for this one end: your never-ending misery. Temptation will please you to abuse you, seduce you to undo you, distract you to destroy you.
Delilah may have been motivated by money rather than hatred, but she was still every bit as determined to destroy Samson. The Philistines, his murderous enemies, said to her, “Seduce him, and see where his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him, that we may bind him to humble him” (Judges 16:5). Just verses earlier, Samson had killed a thousand of them with only a jawbone (Judges 15:16). These men were thirsty for blood, his blood, and Delilah was all too willing to prepare the slaughter.
Like the forbidden woman, the lips of temptation drip honey, “but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword” (Proverbs 5:4). Temptation robs us of honor and squanders our lives (Proverbs 5:9); it spoils our strength and ruins our work (Proverbs 5:10); it ends only in futility and regret (Proverbs 5:11). “The thief,” Jesus says, “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). That is the mission of temptation, however sweet and pleasant it may seem for the moment.
So, how did Delilah seek to destroy Samson? How did temptation overcome even the strongest man?
The first lesson may seem obvious: temptation seduces us by holding out pleasure. “Seduce him, and see where his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him” (Judges 16:5). Before temptation can betray us to destruction, it must woo us with some promise of satisfaction.
“Please tell me where your great strength lies,” Delilah says to Samson, “and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you” (Judges 16:6). We might expect her to flatter or flirt, but instead she asks him directly for his secret. In black and white on the page, it may not even sound like seduction. But this kind of knowledge is intimacy. To ask was to test his love, and to invite him deeper into love with her.
Clearly, Samson didn’t fully trust her (he lied to her), but he also clearly enjoyed her attention and affection. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have had a second hearing. He entertained her games because he had tasted her love — an empty love, to be sure, but one that pleased him all the same. All sin hangs on such love. As John Piper says, “The power of all temptation is the prospect that it will make me happier. No one sins out of a sense of duty.” What sins have beset you, and what happiness have they promised?
Sinful pleasure will always be appealing if we have not set our hearts on a superior pleasure. “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Fullness of joy, not the fractions we often settle for with sin. Pleasures forevermore, not the short-lived thrills of lust, or greed, or laziness, or envy. The power of temptation relies on us believing that sin is better than full and forever. It rests on us being tired or bored of God, the deepest, strongest pleasure in the universe.
If sin cannot lure us with pleasure, it will assault us with shame. Delilah wasn’t making progress through seduction, so she started questioning Samson’s integrity instead. She said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me where your great strength lies” (Judges 16:15). Do you hear the irony in her strategy? “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” All while her heart is in the pockets of the dangerous men outside.
Like Delilah, temptation hides its own murderous motives in order to shame its target. Temptation may not say, with Delilah, “How can you say you love me?” but it may ask, “How can you say you love God?”
One reason some give in so often is because they have believed that sin is who they are. Satan is an accuser. And he does not accuse occasionally, but day and night (Revelation 12:10). If he can convince you that you’re still that same old person — enslaved to pornography, consumed with envy, enraged with anger, defenseless before sloth — he can convince you to do almost anything. Our shame and self-pity are Satan’s food. Without them he, and all his schemes, will starve and expire.
When Satan comes to accuse you — “How can you say you love God?” — know beforehand how you will answer. “I am not who I was (2 Corinthians 5:17). I have been crucified with my King (Galatians 2:20). My sin has been canceled (Colossians 2:14), and it no longer rules over me (Romans 6:14). In Christ, there is now no condemnation for me (Romans 8:1). God has given me all I need to resist temptation (2 Peter 1:3; 1 Corinthians 10:13). Therefore, I will not be put to shame (Romans 10:11).”
Delilah seduced Samson, then she shamed him, and eventually she exhausted him. “When she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death” (Judges 16:16). What began as playful flirtation ended in fatigue and despair. She pressed and pleaded, pressed and pleaded, until he (even he!) could not bear the weight of her advances. Has temptation ever felt like that for you?
Maybe you resisted blowing up in anger at your spouse at first, but he would not relent. Maybe you refused to click on that website at first, but a couple of hours later you were more tired and vulnerable. Maybe you worked hard all week and didn’t give in to laziness, only to crumble into more weekend binge-watching. Maybe you ate with self-control for several weeks, but the cravings slowly overwhelmed you. Temptation is rarely a single arrow to be avoided, but far more often a wide and prolonged wave of warfare meant to wear us down until we surrender.
If temptation depends on exhaustion, the battle against temptation must be more than dos and don’ts in the moment. Alongside the weapons most of us are familiar with — the word of God, prayer and fasting, fellowship and accountability — our ability to withstand temptation’s attacks rests, at least in part, on the health and vitality of our bodies. Good sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise are far more effective weapons against our besetting sins than we may realize or expect. If we neglect or despise them, we invite Satan to wreak his havoc.
So, if we want to overcome temptation, we must study temptation — its seducing, its shaming, its exhausting — and prepare our souls for warfare. Immerse yourself in a superior Joy, anchor your identity and security in who God says you are, and then get some sleep. Temptation is not a simple enemy, so ours will not be a simple victory. But in Christ it will be sure.
We know that God works all things together for the good of his people. But does “all things” include even our sins?
Few words are more precious in the Christian’s vocabulary than the word grace. And yet few words are more misunderstood and misapplied, even by those who treasure the gospel of Jesus.
Already in the New Testament, we find the two basic ways grace can be twisted. The first is the legalist delusion, on display in Paul’s warning to the Galatians: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). The second is the antinomian error, as when “certain people . . . pervert the grace of our God into sensuality” (Jude 4).
Both legalists and antinomians may herald “grace alone” — but the phrase really means “grace ignored” to the one and “grace abused” to the other. Either way, as Sinclair Ferguson powerfully shows in his book The Whole Christ, grace gets disgraced.
Now, most of us are neither self-righteous legalists nor sensuality-loving antinomians. But every one of us is prone to lean toward one error or the other. And the farther we lean, the less amazing grace becomes, and the more burdensome the Christian life feels. Oh, how necessary, then, to stand firmly in “the true grace of God” (1 Peter 5:12).
For all the differences between legalists and antinomians, the two often share one surprising similarity: they treat grace as a thing that God gives, rather than as God’s gift of himself. As Michael Reeves writes,
When Christians talk of God giving us “grace” . . . we can quickly imagine that “grace” is some kind of spiritual pocket money he doles out. Even the old explanation that “grace” is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” can make it sound like stuff that God gives.
Well then, what is grace? Reeves goes on: “The word grace is really just a shorthand way of speaking about the personal and loving kindness out of which, ultimately, God gives himself” (Delighting in the Trinity, 88).
In Scripture, the grace of God is never separated from the God of grace — and in particular, from the God-man of grace, Jesus Christ. The two are so entwined that Paul can call the coming of Christ the coming of grace (Titus 2:11). All grace comes to us, therefore, “through” Christ (Romans 1:4–5), “in” Christ (2 Timothy 1:9) — or, as John puts it, “from his fullness” (John 1:16). Perhaps Paul describes it most gloriously of all when he writes,
In love [the Father] predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:4–6)
Grace comes to us “in the Beloved” — and nowhere else. Grace is sap from the true Vine, warmth from the true Light, affection from the true Bridegroom. In other words, when God gives us grace, he gives us Christ.
What does this have to do with legalism and antinomianism? Everything, if we have eyes to see. For legalism and antinomianism thrive only when we separate the grace of Christ from Christ himself. Only when we treat grace as abstract “stuff” can we imagine that grace is sufficient for this, but not for that: for some righteousness, but not for all righteousness; for forgiveness, but not for holiness.
But if grace comes to us in the Beloved, then grace gives us a full salvation, justifying us with his righteousness, sanctifying us with his holiness, and glorifying us with his glory. Like a mighty river rolling toward us from eternity, grace catches us up into all that Christ is and all he has done, rushing us forward from salvation past to salvation future.
Many who struggle with legalism know how to speak the language of grace. Yet as Ferguson shows so powerfully, “Where the language of grace abounds, it is possible for the reality of legalism to abound all the more” (The Whole Christ, 91).
Perhaps we can recite the five solas, renounce the idea of works-righteousness, and say with the apostle, “By grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8). Yet all the while, we may hear the low inner whisper that this grace is not enough for us. We do not say that our good works justify us alongside God’s grace, but we may feel like it. As a result, we feel justified by God only when we feel good before him: when we can look on our Bible reading, evangelism, and other obedience with at least some satisfaction.
When God gives us grace, however, we never need wonder if his grace will be enough for our justification. Such thinking treats grace as a thing, as currency toward the admission price of the kingdom. But if we have any grace at all, then we have it in union with Jesus Christ. And if we are united to Christ, then we have all that he has and all that he is. In him, we have righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30), redemption (Ephesians 1:7), adoption (Romans 8:16–17) — all that we need for God’s favor to rest on us forever.
When we believe in Jesus, we do not “get” a certain amount of grace from him and then hope it will suffice for our justification. No, by faith we “put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27) such that now, even when we feel most ashamed of our sin, his righteousness covers us like a robe (Isaiah 61:10).
The true grace of God is the remedy for our legalistic tendencies. It is also the remedy for our antinomian leanings. For if grace unites us to Christ, then we cannot enjoy only part of him; we cannot embrace him for justification without also embracing him for sanctification. All that Christ is in his perfect humanity must become ours, including his holiness.
Few passages dismantle our one-dimensional ideas of grace like Romans 6 does. Paul, after celebrating the grace that comes to us in justification (Romans 5:15–21), anticipates the antinomian question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1–2). And why? Because when Christ died under sin’s curse, he buried us with him (Romans 6:2, 10–11), and when Christ rose up from sin’s dominion, he grasped us by the hand and led us into his freedom (Romans 6:4–5, 8).
Hence the victorious words: “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). If grace is only forgiveness, Paul’s statement rings hollow. But grace is more than forgiveness. “Grace is power, not just pardon,” John Piper writes. Yes, and not just any power, but the same power that pulsed through Jesus’s veins when he walked out of the grave. Holiness runs on resurrection strength.
Someone may wonder, “If we make sanctification necessary in the Christian life, don’t we veer into legalism?” No, we don’t veer into legalism; we rather collapse into grace. Sanctification, though it involves our total effort, is just as much a gift of grace as justification. We may strain and fight for holiness; we may even cut off a hand or gouge out an eye. But at every step, Christ teaches us to say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).
No one is justified in Christ who is not also sanctified in Christ — and no one is sanctified in Christ who is not also glorified in Christ. From the moment God unites us to Jesus, glory slowly grows within us: first the seed, then the stem, then the bud. And “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, the bud will burst into full bloom.
In Christ, grace not only fills our past (in justification) and pervades our present (in sanctification); it also adorns our future. So, Peter writes, “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
Grace arrived at the first coming of Christ, bringing righteousness and sanctification (Titus 2:11; 3:5–7). And grace will arrive at the second coming of Christ, bringing glorification. And what will happen? Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). “We shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). In every way that we possibly can be, “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2).
Yet even then, when our conformity to Christ is complete, the river of grace will keep rolling. As we walk resurrected through the new heavens and earth, our glorification will become the backdrop for God to display, through all the coming ages, “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). Every beat of our glorified hearts will echo the grace of him who joined us in the grave so that he might take us up to glory.
Grace, then, is not an abstract quality we can possess apart from Christ. There is only one kind of grace: “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 13:14), the grace that flows freely “in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). If we could imagine grace as less like a spiritual substance and more like a glorious Person, our own spiritual reformation may not be far behind.
Not only would we find ourselves safer from both legalism and antinomianism; we may also find our hearts calmed and settled in the presence of our magnificent Christ. Instead of restlessly looking inward for our justification before God, we would look at his righteousness. Instead of leaning on spiritual tactics for our sanctification, we would lean on his resurrection. And instead of hoping in a vague heaven for our glorification, we would hope in his glorious coming.
As John Calvin counsels us, “Since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other” (Institutes, 2.16.9). Yes, let us drink our fill from Christ and Christ alone, for grace has no other fountain.
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