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Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything,” but does that really mean anything? Is any Christian anxiety good?
Sometimes sitting beside a wall in our congregation’s building in Dundee, Scotland, I ask, in my imagination, if the wall could replay for me what it heard preached in past days. For here, one Sunday, probably in early 1843, the young minister, still in his twenties (and with but months left of his brief life) entered the pulpit having written these words in his journal the week before:
As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power, that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell. Oh, how I wished that I had a tongue like thunder, that I might make all hear; or that I had a frame like iron, that I might visit every one, and say, “Escape for thy life!” Ah, sinners! You little know how I fear that you will lay the blame of your damnation at my door. (Memoirs and Remains of R. M. M ‘Cheyne, 1892, 148)
The same Robert Murray M’ Cheyne (our “founding pastor”; he died at the age of 29) met up with Andrew Bonar one Monday, and learning that his close friend had preached on the subject of hell, asked if he had preached it with tears.
These two comments model for us the necessity that is laid on those who preach the gospel (and give us all a vital reason to pray for them).
There can be no doubt that the overarching and undergirding theme of M’Cheyne’s ministry was the sheer wonder of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ for lost sinners. But in his teens, he realized that the gospel only produces a full sense of that wonder when we have learned why it is so necessary and are conscious of the terrible realities from which Christ came to save us. A sense of the awful nature of hell and the ineffable wonder of the love of Jesus go hand in hand in the gospel message — in the preaching of it, and in the preacher himself.
By nature, we resist the stretching of mind and emotions that this involves. Preachers tend to be emotionally “wired” to one or the other emphasis — strong and bold in preaching hell but weaker in exalting the love of Christ, or favoring the love of Christ but diluting it by minimizing the reality of the hell. And sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that true biblical balance is found “somewhere in the middle.” In Scripture, however, the true balance is found by the stretching of our understanding and affections in both directions.
On the one hand — like the slow-thinking medieval pupil Boso, a millennium later — we need to hear the echo of the words of his monk-master, Anselm: “You have not yet considered the greatness of the weight of sin.” But on the other hand, we should never make the mistake of under-contemplating Anselm’s main theme: Cur Deus Homo — who it was, how it was, and why it was, that the Son of God entered the darkness of the womb of the virgin Mary and died for us in the darkness of the cross of Calvary.
How are we to nurture this “balance” in the ministry of the word? First and foremost, we need to hear our Lord and his apostles addressing us in the Scriptures.
We must contemplate the fact that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10), and in that light see the wonder of the reconciliation and new creation that are ours in him (2 Corinthians 5:17–21). This is what produces in us “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:11) that will open our mouths with gracious boldness to “persuade” our hearers (2 Corinthians 5:11), to appeal to them to “be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20), and to show them why and how this wonder has been made possible by Christ becoming sin for us (22 Corinthians 5:21).
Contemplating the judgment seat of Christ sobers our hearts. Then we discover, with John Owen, that the sermons that go with most power from us will be those that have come with most power to us. There is no substitute for visiting the scene of the Last Assize and meditating on the judgment that will take place there. It will assess the reality of our lives (“according to truth,” Romans 2:2) in a way that is righteous (Romans 2:5), individual (Romans 2:6), altogether without favouritism (Romans 2:11), and permanent (Romans 2:12).
Then, further meditation on the implications of our Lord’s teaching (and the apostles’ outworking of it according to Matthew 28:19–20) will engage us in yet deeper soul-diagnosis and consequent surgery. We will find ourselves mentally and emotionally undeceived. For the result of judgement for those who have not believed is set before us in stark, emotion-laden descriptions.
The unbeliever will experience separation from God — being sent “outside” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:29) and “away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). It is a fire that burns eternally (Matt. 25:42; Jude 7) that is also an “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12), where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 22:13). It involves dissolution (“destruction,” Matthew 7:13; 10:28; Romans 9:22; Philippians 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:2). Dante caught the despair of this in The Divine Comedy in the words he has inscribed over the entrance to hell: “All hope abandon ye who enter here.” Perhaps most sobering of all, it is everlasting (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
No wonder the Puritan Thomas Brooks cried out,
Oh, but this word eternity, eternity, eternity; this word everlasting, everlasting, everlasting; this word for ever, for ever, for ever, will even break the hearts of the damned in ten thousand pieces! Oh, that word never, said a poor despairing creature on his death-bed, breaks my heart. . . . Impenitent sinners in hell shall have end without end, death without death, night without day, mourning without mirth, sorrow without solace, and bondage without liberty. The damned shall live as long in hell as God himself shall live in heaven. (Works of Thomas Brooks, 5:130)
Some readers will recall how, from around 1988 into the early 1990s, the late John R.W. Stott was “jumped on” when his long-held openness to annihilationism became more public knowledge. With respect to everlasting punishment, he wrote, “Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable” (Evangelical Essentials, 314).
Even if we do not share his exegesis and the theology to which it gave rise, should we not share his emotions? For the biblical doctrine of hell strips us emotionally bare. Is it perhaps true that the reason for the metallic nature of some preaching on hell has lain precisely here: we have not felt its sheer unbearableness. Can the sense of edge, or coldness, or the compassionless, even angry-voiced way we preach on it be an indication not of our sense of its reality, but rather that its truth has never broken our hearts? Has listening to such preaching been accompanied in your case, as in mine, by the painful thought that we ourselves may also sound like that?
“Emotionally . . . intolerable”? This is not necessarily unbelief. Indeed, if we have not ourselves felt this, would we not too have been asleep on the outskirts of the Garden of Gethsemane? For the New Testament gives us some indication that the one of whom Luther wrote, “No man feared death like this man,” found the hell he faced there “emotionally intolerable.”
The Evangelists’ descriptions suggest what Luther says about Christ. Luke tells us that it was after and not before the angel strengthened him that “being in an agony he prayed more earnestly and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22:43–44).
Perhaps even more telling is the raw language used by Mark: Jesus “began to be greatly distressed and troubled” and “very sorrowful” (Mark 14:33–34). The verb translated “to be . . . troubled” (adēmonein) is used in the New Testament only here (and the parallel passage in Matthew 26:37) and in Philippians 2:26. As J.B. Lightfoot (a scholar not given to flights of exegetical fancy) notes, it “describes the confused, restless, half-distracted state, which is produced by physical derangement, or by mental distress, as grief, shame, disappointment” (Philippians, 123).
Jesus prayed that the cup his Father was giving him might be removed. His prayer was heard — his prayers were always heard (John 11:42) — but it was refused. For there was no other way (a truth that needs to be pressed firmly on the minds, consciences, and wills of all those who believe they can find another way of salvation, when God the Father could “find” only one).
Jesus prayed “with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). It is not an exaggeration, surely, to say that Jesus found his being made sin, tasting death, undergoing divine wrath and experiencing hell in his own separation from God to be “emotionally intolerable.” It undid him in the presence of his Father and the holy angels, and eventually wrung from his soul — by that time tasting “the darkness outside” — these impenetrable words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“But,” you may say, “this is just the gospel.” Exactly! At the heart of the gospel lie heaven and hell. It is the gospel of the One who tasted hell to bring us to heaven. Any lesser emphases make for a lesser gospel. But this gospel is the gospel of “God’s kindness” which is “meant to lead to repentance” (Romans 2:4 — how striking this statement is precisely because it is embedded in an entire chapter on divine judgment and its consequences!).
But this is also the gospel of the preacher (like Paul) whose mind and emotions are stretched. On the one hand, he sheds tears of grief over the consequences of the greatness of the weight of sin in his hearers’ hearts and the destiny to which that will condemn them; and on the other hand, he feels tears of joy at the greatness of the salvation which he offers to sinners in Jesus Christ.
In the nature of the case, hell and heaven are not the explicit themes of every sermon. But if they are not in the foreground, they should always be the backcloth to our preparation, and the framework within which we view our hearers whenever we are preaching.
So, I need to go to my Bible in the presence of God and meditate until this dawns on my mind, my affections, my will, and then emerges on my lips and my preaching. Only then, even if the words “heaven” and “hell” are not mentioned when I preach, it will become clear to my hearers that the ministry of God’s word is of eternal significance for them — and also for me.
By way of conclusion, two comments made to me about preaching come to mind.
The first, some words of William Still of Aberdeen in Scotland. I cannot forget what I felt when he told me, still a young student, “I never preach now without believing that something will happen that will last for all eternity.” That is the faith of the psalmist and of the apostle: “‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe and so we also speak . . . all for your sake” (2 Corinthians 4:13–15). Who would not want to exercise such a ministry?
Second, some words of a friend, a scientist through whose devoted research people certain otherwise to die within a few weeks were enabled to enjoy prolonged life. Having watched a moving documentary on the result of her work, I said to her how gratifying it must be to see her life’s work making such an amazing impact. She responded very simply, “Sinclair, what I do isn’t really all that important.” And then, with a slight movement of her professorial finger, added, “But what you do. That is really important.”
Words worth weighing. For we are charged with the most important task on earth: pointing men, women, young people, boys and girls to the only Way, to the One who alone can enable them to escape from the City of Destruction and arrive at the Celestial City.
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Rarely do I approach a set-aside time of prayer without thinking of at least one reason, and often more than one, to do something else instead.
Some of the reasons sound plausible: “I need the sleep” or “I have so much work to do.” Others, less so: “I wonder who won the game” or “I should really check my email.” I’m learning to expect such reasons to intrude themselves when it comes time to pray. I’m also learning to call these reasons by their real names: lies.
Now, of course, these reasons are not always lies. Sleep, for example, is among the essential matters of life, and we can honor our God on our pillows just as we can on our knees (Psalm 127:1–2). But when these reasons regularly steal away the time we planned to pray, they have become lies — convenient deceits to keep us from the flesh-killing, hell-thwarting, God-glorifying work of prayer.
If we could take the masks off these lies and look them in the face, we might just see that they can’t be trusted. Consider, then, four lies that hide behind our prayerlessness, and how the Lord Jesus exposes each of them.
Of all the falsehoods that keep us from our knees, this clever line often looks most like truth. “I don’t have time” sounds like simple fact, a matter of mathematical necessity. “The day’s 24 hours are already full,” we think; “prayer will need to wait until tomorrow.”
Such was not how our Savior reasoned. Once, when he healed a man of leprosy, he found himself pressed round by the people of Galilee. They already clamored to be near him (Luke 5:1), but now “even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities” (Luke 5:15). The mission was succeeding; throngs were coming — and not only to be healed, but “to hear him.” Surely, in this season of unusual ministry demands, Jesus would be justified to skip prayer in order to teach these lost sheep?
We read next, “but he would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16). Jesus’s schedule was not dictated by the day’s loudest voices. He was never deceived, as we so regularly are, that this or that important task must take the place of private communion with his Father.
Those who would devote themselves to prayer must be prepared, as Jesus was, to say no to a dozen second-best opportunities (at least for the moment). Those who follow Jesus in such obedience exchange self-sufficiency for dependence on our Father, superficial busyness for genuine productivity, the tyranny of the urgent for the governance of the Spirit.
Few Christians would be bold enough to voice this lie. But how many of us avoid the prayer closet because we believe that prayer is just not worth the effort? Perhaps we have tried praying for focused, extended periods, only to find our minds too distractible, our wills too flimsy, and the returns too meager to motivate us for more.
This lie contains a half-truth: prayer, as Jesus forewarned us, involves tenacious effort. When Jesus told his disciples “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1), he was assuming that they would sometimes pray and be tempted to lose heart. As with the widow in Jesus’s parable (Luke 18:1–8), genuine prayer requires seasons of asking without receiving, of seeking without finding, of knocking on a door that seems barricaded from the inside (Matthew 7:7).
But alongside that realism, Jesus dismantles the lie that we exert such effort in vain. All sincere, faithful asking gives way to receiving, all seeking leads to finding, and all knocking opens a door filled with hope no longer deferred (Matthew 7:8). Our Father knows how to repay our struggles in prayer with “good things” (Matthew 7:11) — the best of which is more of his goodness. If prayer gives us a deeper glimpse of his glory, then every moment of corralling our attention, denying our flesh, and bending our heads back down is worth it.
And on the days when our prayers seem to go nowhere, we would do well to remember C.S. Lewis’s counsel: “When we carry out our ‘religious duties,’ we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready” (Reflections on the Psalms, 97). Some days in prayer, we simply dig and wait for rain. Other days, we drink. But there is no drinking without digging.
As with the last lie, few Christians, if any, would speak this sentence out loud. But many of us still find a hundred ways of saying it without words. When I, for example, make a habit of walking into my day with a full stomach, and aware of the news, and with a complete night of sleep, but prayerless, I am saying, “I cannot handle today without breakfast, information, or my full eight hours, but I can handle today without prayer.”
The power of this lie comes, in part, from the testimony of our experience. Many of us have made it through a prayerless day without wrecking our lives. Perhaps some of us even have found that we can get on surprisingly well without prayer: we can earn our paychecks, raise our children, and make our grades with scarcely a Godward glance.
Such pragmatism forgets the solemn words of our Lord: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from prayerful dependence on Jesus (John 15:7), we can do nothing: nothing that will glorify God, nothing that will endure for eternity. The results of our prayerless efforts may indeed look like something — even something quite impressive — but they are, in God’s sight, a spiritual zero. We are building mansions on a sinking ship.
If our aim is to succeed in a world that “is passing away” (1 John 2:17), then yes, we can handle today without prayer. But if our aim is to do something that will hallow God’s name, something that will make angels applaud, something that will echo even through eternity, then prayer is as necessary as breathing.
Before exposing this lie, we should remember that unrepentant sin does in fact close God’s ears to our prayers. As the psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18). In such a case, “God doesn’t hear me” is not a lie but a tough truth, one that can mercifully be remedied through repentance.
Many of us, however, feel the absence of God in prayer simply because we are embattled saints, afflicted by flesh within and devils without, too easily forgetting why, of all people, we Christians have the privilege of addressing God as “you who hear prayer” (Psalm 65:2). And why is that privilege ours? Because, Jesus tells his disciples, in the age of the new covenant, “you will ask in my name” (John 16:26).
If we knocked on heaven’s door on our own, asking to be heard on the basis of our own name, our own merits, we would have every reason to doubt that God would hear and open to us. But we do not pray in our own name. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Father’s dearly Beloved, who came into the world precisely to bring us to the Father (John 16:27; 17:3, 6). If we are in him, then our voices are no farther from the Father than the Son at his right hand (John 16:28; Hebrews 4:14–16).
True, we may sometimes feel as if our God were a world away, far removed from the sound of our groaning. We may sit in that silence for months or even years, the tempter suggesting that our Father’s ears have finally closed to us. But even then, we can say with the prophet Micah, “As for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me” (Micah 7:7).
Every lie falls away before the wonder of those five words my God will hear me. If God himself will open his ear to our requests, and bend his shoulder to our burdens, and raise his radiant face to our praises, then no barrier can keep us from him. Busyness, trouble, and self-sufficiency may still suggest that we do something else, but we will know what to say: “My God — my glorious, satisfying, burden-bearing God — will hear me. I’m praying.”
I was 35 years old, called myself a lesbian, and worked as an activist and English professor in New York when I first encountered these words from Romans 1:
God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
For this reason, God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting. (Romans 1:24–28)
Huh, I muttered. Seems like dangerous hate speech or some other devastation designed to ruin my life. God’s word brought me to a line in the sand and a hole in my heart.
After many years and much struggling, God used the words of Romans 1 as he led me to repentance and faith. Through the crucible of conversion, I learned that the central thrust of this passage required eyes of faith. What I called love for my lesbian partner, God called defilement.
When God gives a people over to sin, we seem to go blind and deaf and dumb all at once, therefore Romans 1:24–28 is of indispensable importance to the doctrine of the gospel. And yet, of these very same verses, gay activist and progressive self-described “Christian” Matthew Vines writes, “This passage is not of central importance to Paul’s message in Romans” (God and the Gay Christian, 96).
So, which is it? Are these verses inconsequential? Are they God’s love and his offer of life? Should these verses have confronted my homosexuality (and presumably Vines’s)? Or are these verses just “meh”?
As I am typing these words today, having now walked with my Lord and Savior for 21 years, Romans 1 continues to impact my life.
The Bible first confronted me in the welcoming living room of Ken and Floy Smith, a pastor and pastor’s wife who befriended me as their neighbor. Floy has gone on to be with the Lord, but Ken continues as my father in the Lord, offering frequent counsel and encouragement. Ken Smith just wrote these words in an email to me this morning:
We had no idea what all would result from that enjoyable evening there in the Syracuse manse. And it’s still resulting.
Yes, it is still resulting. Because the word of God is living and active. Because God’s salvation fundamentally changes a person from the root. Because God changes the affections of our heart and the work of our hands.
Even though we are not delivered from all sin until glory, sanctification is a mighty thing, even when it is messy and painful and confusing. And all of this raises the question, What does Romans 1 look like today? What does it mean today?
Romans 1 defines for us what homosexuality is and explains why some people give themselves over to it.
We live in a world awash in preferred pronouns and sensitivity training for “sexual minorities” whose “variance” is normalized and celebrated. While the numbers change (and grow), we are told with bold confidence that “science” proves that a certain percentage of people are born gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. (Sometimes this leaves thinking people scratching our heads. When did sexual orientation become a fixed truth but sexual difference merely a psychological choice, changeable at the beckon of the surgeon’s knife? But I digress.)
In Romans 1, homosexuality is described as an ethical outworking of original sin. Adam’s fall into sin (Genesis 3) violated the terms of God’s covenant and plunged all of his progeny into total depravity (Romans 5:8). Thus, biblically-speaking, homosexual desire is not a benign human variance, but rather, a condemning consequence of Adam’s fall.
Romans 1:26 tells us that people give themselves over to homosexuality because they worship and serve the creation. Therefore, from God’s point of view, homosexual practice is the sexual display of false worship. Well-heeled Gay Pride marches, with big-money corporate sponsors smiling in solidarity with the LGBTQ machine, give us a modern-day picture of what worshiping the creature looks like.
In addition to worshiping the creature, homosexuality is also a manifestation of the judgment of God on a rebellious nation (Romans 1:26). There is nothing innocent or scientifically morally neutral about the growing number of people who call themselves gay or the children who are diagnosed with “ROGD” (Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria), and who believe that genital mutilation is their only hope.
ROGD is not an intersex medical condition; it is a social contagion, disproportionately affecting teenage girls. At a speaking event a year ago, the head psychologist of a large university health clinic asked me this question: “Why are 25% of the women who come into my health clinic with anxiety and depression walking out three months later telling me that they are really transgendered men?” Indeed. Because we, as a culture, have not heeded the clear teaching in Romans 1, young people do not know how to interpret the cavernous pain that they feel inside when they worship the creature and the creation.
Like a fatigued mountaineer plunging headfirst off of a snowy summit loses his grip on which way is up, so too, fallen man rails against the creation ordinance. In blindness and sin, he rejects one man and one woman coming together in a fruitful biblical marriage. Not diverse enough, he says in the face of God’s judgement.
The three exchanges of Romans 1 reveal important things about the power of sin. Romans 1 not only tells us what homosexuality is from God’s point of view, but also the process by which a person and a society lose both ability and privilege to hear God’s voice speak into their lives. This happens in degrees, by a series of exchanges. Each exchange deadens the conscience and sears the soul.
Romans 1:23–28 reveals interrelated exchanges that we need to examine: exchanging glory for corruption (1:23), exchanging knowledge of God for falsehood (1:25); and exchanging the creation ordinance for a dysfunctional sexuality that is “contrary to nature” (Romans 1:26–28). Don’t miss the progression: the first exchange is glory for corruption; the second is truth for lies; and the third is natural relations (life-giving) for unnatural relations (death-producing).
Idolatry changes (your) glory into (global) corruption, regardless of your intention. Neither sin nor grace is private; each manifests world-changing meaning and consequence.
The person who changes his glory into corruption is called a fool. He had something irreplaceably precious. It was his glory, inherited from God through the supreme dignity of being made in God’s image. Like a heroin addict who craves what will kill him and disdains what will give him life, the fool cannot stop himself or help himself once he has changed his glory. Idolatry is voracious. And fools not only love company; they demand it (Romans 1:32).
This is the Bible’s witness on homosexuality, our nation’s reigning idol. From the point of view of individual homosexuals, of which I was once one, this is not how it feels. But from God’s omniscient and holy point of view, this is what it means.
These three exchanges serve as a parallel to the three kinds of sin that capture our hearts: original sin leaves us with a desire for that which God hates, actual sin hardens our heart and darkens our soul with each transgression, and indwelling sin traps us into thinking that we cannot mortify a sin that dwells within us because this sin is indistinguishable from who we are.
The father of sin is Satan, and Satan is speaking in every sin that we commit. Our job is to talk back to temptation with Scripture, to conform our minds to God’s point of view, to pray for deliverance from sin with intense love for God, not leaving our prayer time until we have grabbed hold of the power of heaven and received God’s redemptive grace to prevail over sin and temptation. This requires faith in Christ, the King of Kings, and much of it. Praise God that he loves to give us faith and more faith!
Obergefell vs. Hodges was the June 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage in all fifty states. Obergefell ushered in a new world, one where the fragmented LGBTQ community on the margins became the unified LGBTQ machine calling the shots from the center.
Three things resulted: (1) Obergefell codified the idea that sexual orientation is a category of personhood; in reality, sexual orientation is a category mistake that comes from Sigmund Freud. (2) Obergefell expanded civil rights to include protecting the dignity of someone who identifies as LGBTQ; the vague and subjective nature of this legal language has contributed to a world where hurt feelings reign supreme. (3) Obergefell put religious liberty on the firing line, as it pitted the teaching of the Bible against the teaching of the Supreme Court. After Obergefell, LGBTQ is now “who” you are, not only “how” you feel.
Romans 1 offers insight into how we shall live in this post-Obergefell world. First, we shall not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, “for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). And second, “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Habakkuk 2:4).
When we live unashamed of the gospel, we do not live by the sword. This is not merely a political debate. This is spiritual warfare.
We believe that God’s elect people are everywhere, and can be pulled out of any sin pattern into a righteous life by the work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. No matter how lost someone appears, we know where there is life and hope. We know that the gospel comes with offense, and while we do not relish offending anyone, we understand that gospel offense pricks hearts and minds in order to draw sinners to Christ. The offense of the gospel is our wakeup call to reality.
When we live unashamed of the gospel, we apply God’s appointed means of grace with consistency and intensity. We look out for people whose loved ones identify as LGBTQ, knowing that many, many people in the LGBTQ world are prayed-for children. Their faithful parents need our love and help and fellowship, not scorn or rejection or suspicion. We pray with Bibles open, feasting on the word of God, reading whole books at a time, and memorizing as much as we can.
God can deliver, and does deliver, people out of homosexuality by the power of his grace and Christ’s work on the cross — people like me.
When the just live by faith, they put more stock in God’s providence and God’s character than in their own individual point of view.
We first see this phrase “the just shall live by his faith” in the book of Habakkuk. The prophet Habakkuk lived during the Babylon invasion. This book begins with Habakkuk pouring out his heart to God, begging God to do something with his defiant and ungodly people. The charges that Habakkuk brings against God’s people are serious: they defy God’s law and the wicked are ruling over the nations (Habakkuk 1:4). Does any of this sound familiar?
God answers Habakkuk by telling him not to worry because he has a plan: the Babylonians will soon capture God’s people and this will put an end to this problem. Habakkuk is stunned and horrified. He pleads with God to spare his people. He tells God that the Babylonians are far worse than them. He questions God’s divine wisdom. God then explains to his prophet that he is using the evil Babylonians to teach his people that the “just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Through trial and confusion and heartache and pain, Habakkuk learns what it means that the just shall live by his faith.
Likewise, we learn how the just shall live by faith through trial and heartache and pain and confusion. When the just live by faith, they trust God not only with their soul, but also with all of the details of their lives. When the just lives by faith, the Lord cleans house. God’s people learn not to rely on their own understanding, and how to live in the means of his grace he appoints. We feast and feed off of God’s word. We pray and fast. We appeal to God to bring revival. We repent of sin openly. We gladly and persistently gather with God’s people. We live in a constant posture of humility, forgiveness, and hospitality. We don’t despise the cross.
Homosexuality is a serious sin. It ranks with the sins that attack the creation ordinance. While the blood of Christ is more powerful than the power of any sin, while grace is stronger than any sin, a sexual sin that attacks a creation ordinance warps both the mind, body, and soul of a person. Sexual sin lures others into its trap. And a sin that now has civil rights backing acts as a powerful bully, punishing the righteous as it rewards the sinful.
In the face of this, we must remember that the word of God alone meets the need of sinful men. The grand narrative of Scripture provides a means of God’s grace while calling all image-bearers to a standard of duty and truth. This living and active, double-edged sword continues to interpret and defeat the idols of every age and of every generation, including today’s reigning idol of homosexuality. The Bible has a birthright and a progeny totally different from every other book on the planet.
But how have we come to this place where the clear sin of homosexuality seems to be threatening the church? Why are people twisting and bending the Bible in order to defend errant readings of it? Why is the clay calling the Potter to recant? Why are whole denominations going apostate? Why didn’t the LGBTQ world remain a secular discourse that orbited outside of the church? Why has homosexuality transformed itself into a self-proclaimed moral good, remaking the Bible on its terms?
A.W. Pink in a little book entitled Profiting from the Word has insightfully commented that the word of God, when read the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, issues “no spiritual profit,” but instead provides “a curse rather than a blessing.” What is the right way to “profit” from God’s word, so that it serves as a blessing rather than a curse? Pink says that you can only profit from God’s word if it
Because the word of God is divine revelation and a groundswell of supernatural power, it can conquer your sin.
Progressive “Christians” and gay-rights activists have claimed that the Bible is on their side. They interpret the Bible to call sin grace and grace sin. Like the false prophets Jeremiah warns against, who “heal the hurt of my people slightly” (Jeremiah 6:14), the false gospel of gay Christianity cannot bring true peace (which requires repentance and faith), but can only bring momentary and fleeting cessation of war. Instead of using the Bible to anchor our fickle hearts in Christ, the Bible is bent and twisted in the hands of gay-activist “Christians” to serve our wicked hearts. In the hands of gay-rights activists who call themselves progressive Christians, the Bible becomes a curse.
Because of this Bible-twisting, I have recently been called by gay Christians to repent of my repentance of homosexuality. Why? Because if homosexuality is not a sin, then my repentance of it is. In a post-Obergefell world, any debate over homosexuality is never a debate simply over homosexuality. The issue is the infallibility, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture.
Practicing homosexuals — of which I was once one — may not be conscious of the larger, biblical meaning of their sin as outlined in Romans 1, but it would be to their betterment if they were. While the LGBTQ world has become a machine, many individual people who practice homosexuality just want to be left alone to live in peace. But there is no lasting peace in sin, even for the unbeliever.
Listening to the challenges of people who identify as LGBTQ (as well as the praying parents that stand behind them) can be helpful if it allows you to meet them where they are with the gospel that changes minds, wills, affections, and allegiances. Biblical counseling and faithful preaching that breaks our hearts on the Rock of Christ is crucial to this conversation, as is kindness and genuine care for the well-being of others. But Romans 1 is the true Christian’s guide as we seek to live for Christ in this post-Obergefell world. A person’s well-being is never disconnected from truth, because truth is not only true, it is better, it is beautiful, it is ethical, and it is lovely.
Prayer offers us a lifeline to our Lord, a vital connection we need every day. But unless we plan ahead, we will be prone to wander.
I can’t remember richer times of worship than at the bedside of my dying grandfather. I am not usually given to singing (especially solo), but I surprised myself when, in the rollercoaster of the few days leading up to his departure, I could not sing enough to him.
My family shared many precious (and very hard) moments together as he lay dying. Through tears, we spoke with him while we could, reminding him of our great appreciation and love for him, reminding him of his great hope, his great Savior. And as his senses rapidly declined, the final faculty to remain was his hearing.
So, we stood there with him, on the shore of eternity, praying, reading, and singing him into glory. A few hours before the Lord took him home, we sang Rock of Ages, and he tried to mouth along. Our voices in his ears, soon gave way to Christ’s.
I won’t pretend to have much experience at the bedside of dying saints. But I do know that when I sat for days at the side of one I loved most dearly, I could not stop singing and humming songs of Christ. As my grandfather unmoored from this world, and set off to sea, I wanted to remind him — and myself — of Jesus. And my soul longed for expression that only music could afford. I wouldn’t have exchanged those songs for any other words. So I recommend, if God affords you the opportunity, sing your loved ones home.
And know that it matters which songs you choose. Reflecting on those precious moments, I can identify four aspects, in particular, that made some songs a natural soundtrack as his final page was being turned.
Bad songs, like the Pharisees’ biblical interpretations, have religious themes woven throughout but refuse to go to Jesus to have life (John 5:39–40). Michael Reeves’s piercing observation of Spurgeon exposes what can too readily be applied to our songs: “Spurgeon preferred to speak of preaching ‘Christ’ than preaching ‘the gospel,’ ‘the truth,’ or anything else, because of how easily we reduce ‘the gospel’ or ‘the truth’ to an impersonal system.”
Sing songs that remind them of the dying of Christ — present him before their closing eyes. Remind them about what he has done and that he is. Sing of the Christ loving, living, and reigning over death right now: “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–18).
Below are some of the verses we enjoyed most:
Come, behold the wondrous mystery:
Slain by death, the God of life —
But no grave could ever restrain him.
Praise the Lord, he is alive!
What a foretaste of deliverance,
How unwavering our hope!
Christ in power resurrected
As will we be when he comes.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine.
Bold I approach the eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress,
Helpless, look to thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
Oh, that day when freed from sinning
I shall see thy lovely face.
Clothed then in the blood-washed linen,
How I’ll sing thy wondrous grace.
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry;
Take my ransomed soul away.
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.
Sing songs that explicitly plead, point to, and worship Jesus Christ — the only Mediator between man and God (1 Timothy 2:5). Let his name — the only name by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12) — spring forth from your lips.
The Christian inherits a hymnal that does not hide from death. We alone are those freed from the “lifelong slavery” to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15). We do not pretend that death is not coming. We do not pretend it is not an enemy. Yet, we can stare it in its face — with all its horror — because, through Christ, it is not final. In its face, the Christian alone has reason to do what would be foolish to imitate: we sing.
I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness:
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
Then shall my latest breath Whisper thy praise; This be the parting cry My heart shall raise; This still its prayer shall be: More love, O Lord, to thee, More love to thee!
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.
We sing in the face of death because our hope is stronger than the grave. Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, has conquered Death and Hades (Revelation 1:18; 20:13–14). Our songs acknowledge that the foul vessel must now set sail to bring us to heaven.
Most of the songs we sang in the hospital room were hymns. Hymns are not the only tradition that honors Christ. We sang these songs because my grandpa knew them and could sing along in his heart — long after his mouth stood silent and his eyes no longer could read the lyrics. Whatever you sing, sing songs they can sing in the dark.
And here lies an application for all of us: let’s fill our lives now with songs we want to sing while crossing the river Jordan. Songs that will breathe fresh courage when it comes time for us to draw our oars and set off to the next world.
Memorize the lyrics. Sing them to your children. “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:19–20). Why set sail in silence when our souls are desperate for a soothing melody?
Singing at the beside of my grandpa reawakened me to what our Sunday gatherings truly are: dying saints singing with other dying saints of our living hope. Corporate worship is a weekly dress rehearsal for when our day comes. All of our outer selves are wasting away, even as our inner selves are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). We spring forth rivers of living water, and the gentle babble of our soul’s brook is song. We make music in our hearts because we love him.
Every weekend we gather, we are preparing to wade into death and arrive on the other side to eternal life. Whether our loved ones currently sing by our side, or we sing over their grave, no matter how low our notes will go in lament, our songs will eventually rise to the height of the hope we share in Jesus Christ. We are all singing each other home.
When these poor lisping, stammering tongues
Lie silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
We’ll sing his power to save.
We’ll sing his power to save.
“The Lord is at hand.” The apostle Paul wrote that more than 2,000 years ago, so why hasn’t Jesus come yet?
The woman he loved so deeply left him because he began to lose his sight. The two had been engaged to marry. George Matheson (1842–1906) went completely blind before his twenty-first birthday. He lived and ministered in Scotland for decades, and never married.
His eldest sister cared for him for more than twenty years after he lost his sight, until she herself married on June 6, 1882. He had depended on her, in almost every way, for all those years, and then even her eyes were taken away from him. The night of her wedding, he wrote the sorrow-filled lines he may be most remembered for today:
O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine oceans depths its flow.
May richer fuller be. . . .
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee.
I chase the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain.
That morn shall tearless be.
When the rain of all he lost threatened to drown the love he’d known — and he might have wondered if God had utterly abandoned him — Matheson instead wrapped his fingers all the tighter around the promises of heaven. He ran for the tearless wedding to come. His blind eyes, filled with joy, pressed into the tension so many of us feel in suffering: Intense and abiding pain often seem to cast serious doubt on the Father’s love for us.
Matheson’s hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” has been recently revived, with new music, by Indelible Grace. When the group introduced the song at a live recording, the lead singer paraphrased a Puritan, saying, “If you don’t understand justification by faith, it makes every trial a double trial, because not only are you enduring the trial, but you’re having to wonder if God hates you.”
How often have you wondered, in the pain and confusion of hardship, if God might actually hate you? In the sensitive, sore, and exhausting moments of life, we have an even harder time discerning whether our pain is the discipline of a loving Father or the wrath of a righteous Judge. And we know enough of our own guilt to sometimes suspect the latter.
But suffering alone should not make anyone conclude that they are not loved by God — that they are not being loved, right now, through these trials. No one loved by God lives without the discomfort of discipline. God himself says, through another wise father,
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)
The deepest, purest, most sincere love you ever experience will not always feel like love in the moment. It may even feel like hatred.
One of the most precious anthems for fragile and confusing moments like these comes in one of the most familiar chapters in all the Bible:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
Is it fair to say that most Christians know these twelve words by heart, even if by accident? And yet how few feel — day in and day out, deep in the corners of their soul — the freedom these words describe? How many pray and sing “no condemnation” while secretly doubting God’s love for them, suspecting all the verses and promises and hymns were meant for someone else?
We know that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus — that he suffered horribly on the cross so that sinners like us would never taste the wrath of God — but many of us still wrestle with whether we are in Christ Jesus. And all the more when life seems to reinforce our fears, when wave after wave of pain and conflict and sorrow beat against any confidence that we are truly his.
The promise of no condemnation, however, is far stronger than any wave in the Pacific Ocean, and it was specifically made to believers in the throes of suffering (Romans 8:18). The reassurance was not meant for comfortable, secure, peacetime Christians, who always feel the warmth of God’s favor, but for those bearing a heavy cross — those groaning inwardly, waiting for a new body, a new home, a new world (Romans 8:20–23). In fact, we cannot be children, nor heirs, nor truly loved by God unless we suffer with Christ (Romans 8:17). That makes the experience of suffering with God crucial, even precious, for our confidence in his love.
The question, then, is not whether we will suffer, but whether we will suffer with God.
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he knew the faithful would struggle to believe that their suffering wasn’t condemnation. He knew the deep, deep love of God would often feel like wrath. So, after declaring, “There is therefore now no condemnation,” he turns to our haunting question: Who are the children of God, and who are his enemies? Who are the saved, the secure, the forever loved, and who are the condemned? And who am I?
His answer culminates with this summary: “If you live according to the flesh you will die” — you are condemned — “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13) — you may suffer, even severely, for a lifetime, but in Christ you will never again taste the wrath of God. Any pain you receive can only serve you in that one great war against sin — revealing, reminding, refining, purifying. No inch or minute of your suffering is tinged with wrath anymore. No shadow in your life can even begin to dim the floodlight of the Father’s love for you — and no trial or loss can separate you from that love (Romans 8:39).
If you are in Christ by faith, any pain you experience is the discipline of heaven, not the heat of hell. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:7–8). We really ought to fear a life without the precious pangs that train and purify every son or daughter of God.
God disciplines every child he loves, but that does not mean all pain is evidence of his love. Suffering alone does not confirm that the sufferer belongs to God. Some suffering does not lead to life, because no matter how much it hurts, the sufferer still refuses to repent and believe.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians whose selfishness, greed, and carelessness were defiling the Lord’s Supper. And not only were they acting sinfully, but they were unaware of the evil they were doing. Because of their persistent sin, they became physically weak and ill, some even died (1 Corinthians 11:30). God was screaming to them in their pain, warning them about the wrath to come, but they preferred their sin, and persisted in it.
Paul tells them that the sicknesses were meant by God to lead them to healing, the weaknesses meant to awaken them to their sin, even the deaths meant to keep some alive. “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31–32). God will go to extraordinary, even painful lengths, sometimes applying fierce discipline, to save us from condemnation — if we will be done with sin.
The difference between sons and enemies, between discipline and condemnation — in every instance of our suffering — is whether we will renew our trust in Christ and repent of whatever sin he exposes.
“No condemnation in Christ” does not mean there is now no pain for those who are in Christ Jesus. In fact, to be forever loved by the Father often means greater sorrow and loss in this life — but only in this life. And only to make us all the more fruitful in this life. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). When suffering comes — any suffering — we all should ask what, if any, sin we see in ourselves — what new or deeper fruit might this trial yield. None of us are ever too righteous to ask that question this side of heaven.
Sometimes we may be weak or ill or anxious or exhausted because we have refused to be done with some particular sin. God is sounding the alarm to wake us up to finally fight temptation and walk by faith, but we keep pressing snooze — and then wondering why we still suffer. If this is you, let this trial become the day of repentance. Flee from the awful wrath of condemnation into the arms of a loving Father. He is calling to you, with severe mercy, in your suffering, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Other times, the faithful suffer because, in God’s wisdom, our pain, though not tied to any particular sin, is somehow vital to our good. Maybe the suffering refines or softens some still dark edge of our renewed hearts. Maybe the suffering prepares us to love another sufferer well. Maybe our suffering, and how we respond to it, will cause someone to ask about Jesus and be saved. If we are in Christ, we cannot count the ways God will use suffering to sanctify us, to equip us, to provide for us, to draw us near — in short, to love us, with a love that will never let us go.
Saturday 4:00 pm
Sunday: 7:45 am , 9:30 am & 11 am
Nursery service is available at the 9:30 service.
Sunday School 10:20 am
Children's Church on the 2nd Sunday of every month at 9:30 am
8:00 am - 3:00 pm