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If an old-time preacher, one who believed in uncomfortable realities like the wrath of God, human depravity, and divine judgment, rode his horse through some of the streets of American Christianity, what might he experience?
Sounding the alarm as Paul Revere, this watchman might gallop down our paved roads yelling,
“Jesus is coming! Jesus is coming! Make way for the King! Repent and believe! Stay awake! Keep the faith! Only those who endure to the end will be saved! Put the flesh to death by the Spirit! Obey him! Finish the race! Look to Jesus! Trust him for his grace! He is coming to judge the world in righteousness!”
To his delight, a good number would trim (or would have already trimmed) their lamps. These already live looking out the window — trusting, praying, fellowshipping, killing sin, living awake — ready for their Master to return.
But to his amazement, some voices would shoot back from dimmed rooms:
“You must be lost, dear sir. We are Christians. You must have meant to stir up the next town of Never-Heard or perhaps Secular City down the way.”
“Good works,” laughs another. “Why, good sir, do not tell me you are Roman. ‘By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight’ (Romans 3:20). Our faith justifies, we will not quiver as though our doings made us right with God.”
“Forgive me,” the preacher says, taken aback. “I did not mean to have you rise and live and work to earn salvation — it cannot be done and cursed are all who try. I meant rise with your new nature, new affections, new allegiances, new Spirit, and new commandments, live and stay alert with holy urgency. Walk the narrow way, work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Strive for the holiness without which we cannot see the Lord. Confirm your calling and election.”
“Yes. Yes. We have heard of your kind before,” remarks the first. “More emphasis on our works than Christ’s. Listen here, Christ lived a perfect life for me and died in my place. I have failed, will fail — and often fail — but Christ, sir, Christ lived such a life in my place. I refuse to return to law. I am gospel-centered, you see.”
“Oh, sir,” adds the second, “now I know you to be trouble. What is this talk of wrath and judgment? We are Christians. All these warnings, threats, exhortations, admonishments come to my ears as the fearmongerings of a legal religion. No condemnation is mine in Christ. I wish you a speedy return to Heretics Highway.”
With that, before another word could be spoken, several windows might shut, otherwise their snores would soon become audible from the street.
The above account, albeit exaggerated, captures the instinct of some professing Christians today when they come across the imperatives and the warnings of Scripture.
Some self-professed “gospel-centered” Christian teaching leaves little room for discussing our efforts and actions besides repeating that they do not justify; sees Christian living as an almost irrelevant holding cell before heaven; understands justification as the totality of salvation; has little-to-no category for conditional divine promises; and holds dismissive ideas about the warnings and commandments of Scripture.
“Once saved always saved,” they say in defense. “Jesus obeyed so I do not have to.” When they stumble across an imperative or warning, they dismiss it as yet another gospel-reminder — “Of course I could never cut off my hand of lust, or live a self-disciplined, pure, humble, hospitable, forgiving, or faithful life — but thank God Jesus did all that for me.” However, true cross-centeredness takes up all the aims of the cross: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Now, thank God that Jesus has lived the life we could not live, and died the death we should have died, and rose again from the grave in victory — the heart of our faith. But the red ink falling from the cross did not redact the imperatives or cautions of the New Testament for believers. The cross does not silence its Lord.
God, from the beginning, has graciously warned his people of the hidden and inevitable consequences of their rebellion. Beginning in the garden, he spoke to the sinless man, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). When he commands and warns us in the New Testament, do we listen?
Let’s take, for example, the cohabitating realities of justification by faith alone and a living warning of hell bound up together in Romans 8.
First, the treasured language of justification of Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” For the true believer, joined to Christ by faith: zero condemnation right now because of what Jesus has accomplished. We stand “not guilty” in the courtroom — and more than that, declared righteous through faith (Romans 3:28). Because of a work done outside of us yet applied to us, all our sins are forgiven, our guilt taken, no condemnation.
Some, then, take this promise, this glory, and infer that they are safe, already in heaven, with essentially nothing required of them until Jesus returns. Nothing but sunny skies ahead. But such forecast changes just a few verses later: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13).
After telling them (and us) no condemnation exists in Christ, the apostle Paul tells them — the same group he addressed in Romans 8:1 — that if we live according to the flesh, we will die, no matter what we profess about justification. Does our gospel-centeredness mute this warning? Do we skip over these verses? We shouldn’t.
Again, Paul warns, “Professing Christian, if you do not put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, you will surely die” — meaning, the eternal death of conscious punishment in hell. The true belief that no condemnation remains for them right now in Christ did not negate the true warning right now against living in sin.
Now note, for those wondering about assurance, Paul also will soon remind us that all the truly justified (the same ones who persevere in killing their sin by the Spirit) — will be glorified. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). And by the end of the chapter, he exclaims that nothing in all the universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:37–39).
So which is it? Do I believe I am free from condemnation, or do I fear the possibility of condemnation? Both.
We believe in the assurance Christ offers, and we fear turning from him, being lured away by the flesh, the devil, and the world. God issues real warnings about hell to keep us from that very hell. They serve as real (not hypothetical) means God uses for our perseverance.
God promises and God warns — carrot and stick — to bring us home to himself safely. His “precious and very great promises” sing us to unseen realms where his glory dwells, while his thunder shakes us from earthly temptations toward suicidal pleasures. All of his sheep will make it home treasuring both his promises (Romans 8:1) and his warnings (Romans 8:13).
And God promised this long ago:
They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. (Jeremiah 32:38–40)
The fear of God is a new-covenant adhesive to keep us near God. Israel did not have this fear; a fear that fastens when temptation comes. Such dread is unlike fearing an abusive father, a violent fear sending us cowering away. The Christian’s fear draws him ever to Christ in full assurance of faith (Hebrews 10:22). Christ will find us at peace at his return (2 Peter 3:14). In Christ, we know that God won’t renege his covenant, nor do we look over our shoulder waiting for unexpected blows.
The fear soberly considers life outside of Christ, weighs the real consequences of jumping from the ark into God’s waves of judgment — and trembles.
Such faith believes that if we deny Christ, Christ will deny us (2 Timothy 2:12); if we forsake God’s kindness, we will be cut off (Romans 11:20–22); if we sow to corruption, we will reap corruption (Galatians 6:7–8); if we pamper our right eye of lust, we will be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29); if we do not hold our original confidence to the end, we will be lost (Hebrews 3:12–14); if we continue sinning deliberately, no sacrifice for our sins remains (Hebrews 10:26–27); if we live according to the flesh, we will die (Romans 8:13; Galatians 5:19–21).
This faith takes hold of the promises that woo us to Christ, and gladly receives the warnings that shout to our souls, Do not leave him!
The new-covenant warnings are not washed away by the blood of Christ. The new-covenant people of God are those that fear him forever, with the fear of faith, for their good. Like Nehemiah, they “delight” to fear God’s name (Nehemiah 1:11) and believe, with gratitude, the cautions he gives about falling from him. They mind his warnings and rest in his promises. They love his word, serve his people, and cherish his likeness. They sing, “No condemnation in Christ,” and cry, “Flee from the wrath to come.”
What does it mean to learn Christ? And if you were studying Ephesians for yourself, how would you answer a question like that from the Bible?
The end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God.
I have read sentences I can’t escape — and I don’t want to escape them. They have helped me in deep and lasting ways. I thank the Lord.
For example, in What Is an Evangelical?, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Every institution tends to produce its opposite” (4). Decades later, that sentence still arrests my attention.
What is an institution? An institution is a social mechanism for making a desirable experience easily repeatable. Our church services are an institution. And it’s a good thing. What if we had to reinvent the ministry from scratch every Sunday? But a life-giving institution can drift into life-depleting institutionalization. That happens when the institutional delivery system itself becomes the goal, the end, the idol. Then undesirable experiences become absolutized and perpetuated.
And that horrible betrayal is not a distant hypothetical possibility. Every institution tends to produce its opposite. Haven’t we all seen evidence of this tendency in a church?
Let’s keep our finger on the pulse of our churches, and keep realigning with reformation and revival. And for those of us who are pastors — who gave us the right to preside over dead and deadening religious institutionalization? Authentic Christianity is a revival movement. As long as the book of Acts remains in the Bible, which we ourselves call our final authority, we have every right in Christ to keep reaching for renewal in our churches.
Another sentence that is never far from my mind came from Francis Schaeffer in No Little People: “We must do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way” (74). I believe this is the defining issue in our generation, and in every generation.
If we serve the Lord out of our own strengths, out of our own cool, even out of our own postmodern ironic self-mockery, we are not serving the Lord. We are insulting the Lord, while we flatter ourselves that we are serving the Lord. But if we will turn and humble ourselves, doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way, and in his way only, then the Lord himself will enter into our work with his glorious power.
It is wonderful when the Lord blesses the work of our hands. But it is altogether more wonderful when the Lord takes up the work in his own hands. The difference is publicly obvious. The glory of Christ will compel the attention of our world.
The sentence I want to talk about most, however, follows the trajectory set by those first two sentences. In his book about the Puritan movement, A Quest for Godliness, J.I. Packer writes,
The end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God. (39)
What a compelling vision for ministry priorities and pastoral courage! Packer’s bold sentence reminds me of Isaiah 40:3–5, where we read,
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The logic of Isaiah’s prophecy can be summed up like this: “First some preparing, some rearranging, even some upheaval, and then the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” This world is not ready for the glory of the Lord. Too many of our churches are not ready for his glory.
The barriers against the historic display of his glory are firmly established in the trendy distractions of the world and in the dull routines of our churches. The only one fully ready for the display of Christ’s glory is Christ himself. Packer understood that. He understood that, for our churches to become filled with the felt presence and power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, “everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out.”
Pastor, have you accepted this prophetic call?
Yes, there are foolish and reckless ways to pursue this sacred purpose in a church.
It remains true, however, that every mountain of life-depleting institutionalization must be made low. It remains true that every valley of brokenhearted despair must be lifted up. It remains true that the Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way — by humble and constant prayer, by honest confession of sin and need, by living power coming down upon us from on high. And then the glory of the Lord will appear, more and more clearly, in this generation and the next. Would we dare settle for less?
As we pastors take these convictions to heart and redirect our steps to press forward, some wisdom from my dad can help. Dad used to say about pastoral leadership, “One step ahead of your people, and you’re a leader. Two steps ahead, and you’re a visionary. Three steps ahead, and you’re a martyr!” So the way of wisdom is deliberately to stay only one step, or maybe two, out ahead. After all, God is patient. You can be patient too. Just be graciously unstoppable.
With winsome persuasion from your open Bible, keep leading and guiding your church forward in this high, holy, joyous direction: the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of a lively congregation in which people meet God. What more could you hope for? It’s worth praying for. It’s worth working toward. It is worthy of your long-haul best. And it sure beats settling for a church that’s comfortably numb, with you picking up a monthly paycheck and holding out until retirement, don’t you think?
Yes, pastor, the obstacles are real. I know that. But I also know that your call is clear. And I know that God’s faithfulness, which has carried me all these years, will carry you too. So let this sentence from our friend J.I. Packer put new heart in you! The Lord himself will be with you.
Whether Old Testament or New Testament, stories fill the pages of Scripture. How can we begin to discover God’s meaning in the Bible’s narratives?
Earnestness in our day is becoming all the more admirable for being rare. The age of scrolling, skimming, and lol’ing, by and large, has made us a lighter, more superficial, more fragile people. Many of us have slowly developed an allergy to seriousness. Our hearts faint too easily.
The bright lives of a few, though, pierce through this spiritual fog, and sparkle with a reality that has grown dim for many. Their words, their priorities, their responses repeatedly reveal that Christ has captured their fuller devotion. They delight to sacrifice and serve when others would groan and make excuses. They seem stronger in the face of adversity, kinder in the midst of conflict, more joyful than others, even in suffering. They have a focus that eludes the stressed and distracted. We’re drawn to them (and perhaps sometimes intimidated by them), because their lives remind us of what really matters, of the world that exists below the surface of our senses, of the spiritual war for our souls. Time with them stimulates us to pray more, love more, and grow more.
These saints have many qualities in common, but one is that, in the words of 2 Corinthians 8:7, they excel in earnestness.
Christian earnestness is a settled and joy-filled intensity toward God. As Hebrews 6:11–12 says,
We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
Earnestness is the opposite of spiritual dullness, laziness, apathy, complacency. Like all believers, the earnest experience seasons of doubt and struggle and discouragement, but even then (maybe especially then), the flame of their faith burns warmer and brighter than expected.
Where else is this spiritual fire mentioned? The apostle Paul exhorts us, “Do not be slothful in zeal” — same word — “be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). That verse alone calls for some serious reflection and prayer. How often have we felt slothful in zeal? How often have we felt spiritually aflame? And how comfortable have many of us grown with our persistent sluggishness? Do we still pray for God to rekindle the fire we once had?
The daily fight for faith is often fought in the trenches of our own dullness. Like the mercy that comes every morning, we each need a fresh awakening for the day at hand.
This word for earnestness (Greek spoudei) appears most often (four times) in 2 Corinthians 7–8. In these two chapters, the apostle outlines the deadly difference between godly grief over sin and ungodly grief. “Godly grief,” he says, “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
The Corinthians had been neglecting to discipline those who had sought to discredit and ruin Paul, so when he wrote his previous (and painful) letter (see 2 Corinthians 2:2), he meant for his words to grieve them. But he wanted them to experience a godly grief, a repentant grief, a hopeful grief, a grief that leads to salvation — not the shallow, self-centered sorrow so many, even atheists, often feel over the consequences of sin. What did the apostle want to happen in them as they were confronted with their sin?
Although I wrote to you, it was not for the sake of the one who did the wrong, nor for the sake of the one who suffered the wrong, but in order that your earnestness for us might be revealed to you in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 7:12)
As you prepare to stand before God, Paul says, I want you to see your own earnestness in his eyes. I want you to savor the spiritual fire my letter has sparked in you.
And the Corinthians did grieve well. Paul affirms them, “See what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal” (2 Corinthians 7:11). As they were confronted with their sin, they not only acknowledged it, and repented of it, but they were also filled with a fresh, sobered, active sense of reality. Serious conviction before God birthed a more serious devotion to God and a more serious love for others.
Notice that this awakening, this earnestness, was seeded by a hard word from Paul. Rebuke, as unpleasant as it may feel in the moment, is often an invitation from God into greater spiritual sanity and vitality. And yet, too often, we instead wallow in self-pity, miss the invitation, and forfeit the fire we might have experienced.
That the Corinthians lacked earnestness and then grew to excel in it means that, however spiritually sluggish we feel, we too can grow in earnestness. What might it look like to pursue earnestness? The word appears again in 2 Peter 1:3–8 — “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge,” and so on. One might say, “With all earnestness, supplement your faith with virtue . . .” In these verses, Peter gives us windows into what sets the earnest apart.
The earnest consistently live and build on a firmer foundation, with higher and more Godward priorities, while drawing on a wealth of resources so few learn to access.
First, the earnest are unusually secure and settled, because they live and build on a firmer foundation. Peter writes, “[God has] called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort . . .” (2 Peter 1:3–4). Notice the convictions that fuel this earnestness:
Active awakeness to these realities produces gravity and freedom in a soul. They form a foundation underneath a person that keeps him or her from being tossed to and fro by circumstances. They steady and anchor our faith so that we can see more clearly and act more decisively in love.
Part of pursuing earnestness is assessing the ground beneath our feet. Are we really building our lives and ministries on the rocks God has laid before us in Christ? Are we finding our footing, morning by morning, upon the most important realities in the world, or have we become preoccupied with everything else?
In addition to security and stability, though, souls need direction. If the earnest make every effort, where does all that effort go? Many work hard, with unfettered passion, until they’re burnt out, but in all the wrong directions. The joy-filled intensity of godly earnestness, however, aligns its effort with the priorities of heaven.
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:5–8)
Part of what sets the earnest apart is found in how they spend themselves. They devote themselves to spiritual concerns and opportunities over worldly ones — and they delight to do so.
The earnest have not fallen in love with this present world (2 Timothy 4:10), and so they refuse to pour their best energies into the passing parts of this life that feel so pressing. They seek truth like silver. They want, with God’s help, to master their cravings and impulses. They treasure godliness above anything they might achieve. They’re not content to love only a little, but want their love to “abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9).
As the earnest make every effort toward faith, toward steadfastness, toward holiness, toward love, they do not rely on their own strength. They carry more than most longer than most precisely because they endure in the strength and grace of another. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:3).
When it comes to life and godliness, we are helpless on our own. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If we really believed those seven words, they would solve an enormous amount of dysfunction in our hearts and relationships. But God did not leave us to ourselves. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” Through faith, God takes our nothing — our utter inability to think, feel, and act in ways that glorify him — and he gives us all things in Christ.
The earnest make their homes beside these wells. They know that heaven’s storehouses of strength, wisdom, courage, and love are only a prayer away. They draw constantly from the precious, great, and specific promises of God. His strength makes them look strong, but only because they know themselves weak without him.
Among those you know, who seems to live closest to Jesus? Whose life consistently pierces through the worldliness around you and shines with a supernatural quality? Whose words and actions are marked by both urgency and patience, ambition and humility, hunger and contentment? Whose conversations stimulate you to pray and love and grow more?
Make every effort to study, befriend, and imitate such saints. Their lives are a priceless testimony and reminder, and their camaraderie invaluable, in our shallow and distracted age. Disrupt any comfort you feel with your own sluggishness. Ask God for the grace to excel in earnestness.
The world makes its quiet but furious war against death, groping to live forever. Plastic surgery, obsessive fitness, compulsive dieting, pouring billions into scientific research searching for the holy grail of immortality. The author of Hebrews describes the condition as a lifelong slavery to the fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).
Try as we may, Adam’s and Eve’s children cannot shake the ancient nightmare.
[God] drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:24)
Humanity, east of Eden, still reaches out in vain for that Tree of Life.
How would the world change overnight if all people everywhere heard that a man had cured death? How many ages would pass celebrating the discovery? But as it stands, these same people bypass the knowledge of a true eternity because it is not the eternity they invented.
God has placed in us a sense that life continues after death: “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Yet most suppress this knowledge of their own immortality. But why?
Because they “did not see fit to acknowledge God” (Romans 1:28) — the God “who inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15). They disavow the truth their hearts would thrill to believe because they do not approve of any eternity with God. Better to steal happy moments from a broken and fleeting mortality, their dead hearts reason, than submerge in an endless existence with the God they disapprove.
All men, we know, shall live forever. We trust and love the eternal God, we believe in the resurrection from the dead, we believe Jesus’s promise of eternal life with him. And we know the everlasting fate of the wicked: “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).
Eternity exists, we believe, and all men are immortal. The souls we come in contact with at the ballgame, in the restaurant, walking the dog — shall be a million years from now. The mailman, the bus driver, the nosy neighbor — immortal beings. The most decrepit among us shall outlive the galaxy.
Even considering those who have gone before us — the deceased grandfather, the fallen child, the departed spouse — though hidden momentarily from our eyes, we know they are and shall be again. Death, we profess, is the Great Interruption, not the Great End.
While we say we believe in undying souls (a truth that the world would go delirious to acknowledge), do we give that momentous reality much thought? Does that eternal weight of glory hold much weight with us? Has it changed your week at all?
How many of us have believed upon eternity, as John Foster lamented, in vain?
The very consciousness that your minds have been capable of admitting and dismissing this subject [eternity] without a prolonged and serious emotion, ought to produce at last that seriousness, by means of wonder and alarm, which may well be awakened by the consideration how many years you have believed this truth in vain. (An Essay on the Improvement of Time, 150–151)
How many years have I believed in eternity without much effect? And not just any eternity, but eternity with the Blessed God? Eternity with Jesus Christ? How many of my waking moments of these short and numbered days have orbited around the ceaseless “day of eternity” (2 Peter 3:18)? If in Christ I have hope in this life only, do I really feel myself of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19)?
How this world deceives me. The sturdy tree and its branches I call “this life”; the falling leaf I call, “eternity.”
With one glance of the mind, I realize my madness. Who at sea would give all his affection and thought to a day’s trip onboard, completely disregarding the inescapable land ahead? I forget that “Surely a man goes about as a shadow!” (Psalm 39:6) as a dream (Psalm 78:18–20), as a flower that fades, as grass that withers (Isaiah 40:6–8), as a mere mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes (James 4:14). This world, O my soul remember, “is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).
I hope you have kept eternity closer at hand than I have.
Have you, Christian — possessor of the mightiest revelations, steward of sacred knowledge, keepers of the way of eternity — appropriated these truths for yourself and distributed them freely to a desperate and decaying world? Has forever bent down with you as you changed diapers? Has it drove with you to work? Has it laughed along while you had a game night with neighbors?
Has “everlasting” brought you low to plead in prayer for your children, your church, your city? Has that terrifying splendor, “immortality,” lifted your gaze from this painted and perishing kingdom to the one that cannot be shaken?
Has eternity provided you an anchor in suffering? Sent you along on a grand mission? Warned you against friendship with Here and Now? Bestowed solemnity to life? Brightened up gloomy days? Infused courage to venture on in Christ? Showed you the coming tsunami that will wash away all these splendid sandcastles? Endowed acquaintances with new significance? Lifted our eyes with abiding gratitude to God? Equipped us to drive a spear through sin?
Have you believed in eternity in vain?
We must awake to the coming world without end. We are those who look “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
People all around us live and die for the seen, the felt, the tasted, the pleasurable, the transient. But God has left you and me here to speak, to reason, to plead with immortal souls that they be reconciled to God.
Through faith in Christ, we have reached our hands out to a Tree of Life on Golgotha’s hill, and we will taste of that fruit denied to our first parents:
To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. (Revelation 22:14)
This tree is within reach because Jesus Christ — the Resurrection and the Life — has drawn near to us. He promises, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die,” and asks the pertinent question, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).
God give us grace to believe, and to make sure our friends know, our families know, our children know, that eternity is only a short time away.
The heart that loses God as its greatest desire becomes a cauldron of desires for sensuality.
Life’s pressures have a way of exposing hidden sins and introducing new temptations. So how do we know if pressure is making us more holy or more sinful?
For many Christians, the term Scripture memory means rote memorization of Bible verses. And this conjures up feelings of past failure (over how often they’ve tried and given up), or futility (over how little they recall of what they once memorized), or fear (over memories of having to publicly recite verses).
Who wants to pursue Bible memory if it means more failure, futility, or fear?
No one, if that’s what Bible memory means. But that’s not what it means. It means so much more than rote memorization. And it’s crucial that we see the bigger picture of Bible memory so we understand why it’s so important to the Christian life — why God repeatedly commands us to remember.
Here’s how I describe it:
Bible memory means stockpiling your God-given memory with God-breathed truth (2 Timothy 3:16) so that your God-given imagination can draw from it to construct a more accurate understanding of God-created reality, enabling you to live in “a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
Let me try to briefly unpack this.
Your memory is amazing. If you’re thinking, “No, it’s not,” you’re probably overly aware of your memory weaknesses. And you probably measure yourself against people with extraordinary memories, like Charles Spurgeon, who, as J.I. Packer described, had “a photographic memory, virtually total recall, and as he put it ‘a shelf in my mind’ for storing every fact with a view to its future use” (Psalms, 4).
But don’t let phenomenal memories blind you to the marvelous gift of God that is your own memory. Your ability to recall information to your conscious mind is just one function your memory performs. But it does far more than that.
Your memory is a vast library, far more sophisticated than the Library of Congress, where you’ve been collecting information since before your birth. In that three-pound lump of wet grey tissue inside your skull, in ways that remain largely mysterious despite wonderful recent advances in neuroscience, you have stored enormous amounts of information in the form of impressions, sensations, sights, sounds, smells, cause-and-effect observations, propositional statements, stories, and dreams, as well as real, unreal, or anticipated experiences that produce joy, sorrow, pleasure, anger, delight, horror, desire, fear, and on and on. And you draw from this mental library all the time, every day, consciously and unconsciously, to do everything you do.
And more marvelous still is how your memory works with all levels of your consciousness to allow you to imagine.
By imagination, I’m not talking about our ability to create fantasy worlds in our minds. I’m talking about our ability to draw from our vast store of information and construct an image (or model) of reality, and then draw implications for what it means. That is the primary function of our imagination. It allows us to conceptualize things we learn are true, but cannot see. Which is crucial for those of us called to “look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Corinthians 4:18), to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
And what empowers our ability to imagine is our memory.
Augustine, in his jaw-dropping meditations on the human memory in book 10 of his Confessions, explained it this way:
From [my memory] I can picture to myself all kinds of different images based either upon my own experience or upon what I find credible because it tallies with my own experience. I can fit them into the general picture of the past; from them I can make a surmise of actions and events and hopes for the future; and I can contemplate them all over again as if they were actually present. If I say to myself in the vast cache of my mind, where all those images of great things are stored, “I shall do this or that,” the picture of this or that particular thing comes into my mind at once. Or I may say to myself “If only this or that would happen!” or “God forbid that this or that should be!” No sooner do I say this than the images of all the things of which I speak spring forward from the same great treasure-house of the memory. And, in fact, I could not even mention them at all if the images were lacking. (215–16)
It’s our immense memory that provides our creative imagination the information from which to make sense of reality and draw the correct implications. And we can’t imagine anything that isn’t meaningfully present in our memory.
This is why Bible memory so important.
Have you ever noticed how often the Holy Spirit inspired biblical authors to stress the importance of memory? Over and over God commands us to remember his word (for example, Numbers 15:40; Psalm 103:17–18; Isaiah 48:8–11; Luke 22:19; 2 Timothy 2:8). In fact, it would be worth a week of your devotional Bible reading to look up all the texts that mention these words as they relate to what God has revealed to us: memory, memorial, remember, remembrance, remind, call to mind, recall, forget, forgot, and forgotten.
To re-member is to call to mind something we’ve previously learned, something that exists in our memory. We can see such remembering in Lamentations 3:21–23, written while the author was experiencing terrible distress and suffering:
But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
The truth that the author called up from his memory, which sustained him in great need, was something he learned prior to his need. And it was something he was learning in more profound ways at that very moment.
That’s Bible memory: calling to mind and keeping in mind biblical truth we’ve learned, so that it expands and deepens our understanding over time, and continues to shape the way we live.
That’s perhaps why the Bible doesn’t say much about rote memorization, but it says a lot about meditation, because meditation is the way we both learn and remember. If you take that week of devotional exploration, it will add to your understanding of how meditation relates to remembering if you look up all the texts that mention these words: meditate, meditation, understand, understanding, know, knowledge, wise, and wisdom.
Biblical meditation (or reflection, rumination, contemplation) takes place when our God-given imagination processes the God-breathed information we store in our God-given memory in an effort to understand, or further understand, God-revealed reality, so that we might live wisely. We can see this process at work in Psalm 119:97–99:
Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers,
for your testimonies are my meditation.
Implicit in this text on meditation (and most others in Scripture) is repetition. We all know from experience that repetition is what drives most information into our long-term memory. And this is the great value of memorization — it is a servant of meditation.
That’s certainly been my experience. Few practices have helped me meditate on Scripture more than memorization. The method I’ve found most effective has me repeating the same section of text over many days. This repetition not only has driven these texts into my long-term memory, but it has given my imagination the opportunity to ruminate on them.
As a result, I’ve gained a deeper, richer understanding of these texts and how they relate to other Scriptures and the world. That’s been the greatest benefit for me. Even though I don’t retain perfect conscious recall of many Scriptures I’ve memorized, meditating on them has woven their meaning and application into the fabric of my understanding. And they do come to mind much more readily, especially in times of need.
If Scripture memory has negative connotations for you, don’t think of it as memorizing Bible verses. Rather, think of it as
stockpiling your God-given memory with God-breathed truth (2 Timothy 3:16) so that your God-given imagination can draw from it to construct a more accurate understanding of God-created reality, enabling you to live in “a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
It is a gift of God, a means of grace, to help you meditate on God’s word and bring reality to life.
As someone who struggles with memory weaknesses and who used to believe that Bible memorization wasn’t for me, I strongly recommend memorizing Scripture, especially larger sections. This is something you can do — you really can. You won’t regret employing this very effective servant of meditation.
For accurate understanding comes from careful meditation on true information. And accurate understanding results in our discerning right implications for what true information means. And when we live according to this understanding, the Bible calls it wisdom (Psalm 111:10).
This is the goal of Bible memory.
Underneath every rejection of Christianity is a hardness of heart and rebellion of life.
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