The Christian Life

Sinclair Ferguson on the Law and Love

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315Many in our day seem to pit law and love against each other, as if love somehow renders the law of God unnecessary, or as if rules and relationships (or loving ones anyway)  were mutual exclusive. But is this the biblical way of looking at it? What is the right way to view the relationship between law (specifically the ten commandments) and love?

In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson writes,

“In fact love was always at the heart of God’s law. It was given by love to be received in love and obeyed through love. The divine commandments could be summed up in the great commandment to love God with heart, soul, and strength. Thus Jesus himself teaches that if we love him we will keep his commandments. Paul adds that rather than nullify[ing] the law the gospel strengthens it. Moreover specific laws from the Decalogue are almost casually sprinkled throughout the New Testament. Not only does love not abolish the law, but the law commands love!” (p.162-163)

Even in the very text of the ten commandments themselves this is explicitly stated. Look at the text of the 2nd commandment (as stated in Exodus 20:4-6):

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (ESV, italics mine)

Those who commit the sin of idolatry are said to “hate” God. Why? Because they commit idolatry. In other words, if they truly loved God, they would not commit idolatry (or have other Gods before Him, or take His name in vain, etc.). Love, in many ways, is defined by its actions. So while love certainly involves more than our outward actions (i.e. it includes right motives), it does not involve less than our outward actions (i.e. it doesn’t render them meaningless or unnecessary).

And how does God Himself describe those who love Him? As those who “love me and keep my commandments” (v.6). So love and commandment-keeping go together – and they always have. And (as the saying goes), what God has joined together, let no man separate.

“The Master of the Jigsaw Puzzle of Our Lives” (Sinclair Ferguson on the Providence of God)

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson includes a chapter dealing with what Romans 12:1-2 has to say about the doctrine of sanctification.  In v.2 the Apostle Paul says the following:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ESV)

There Paul describes the will of God as “good and acceptable and perfect.” Now this passage, strictly speaking, primarily refers to what is known as the preceptive will of God. That is, the will of God as it has been revealed in Scripture regarding how we as believers in Christ are to live. We are to seek to discern and do the will of God. And in doing so, we will find His will to be good, acceptable, and perfect.

But, as Ferguson points out, this passage also has application to the will of God in general, and so even to what is known as His secret or decretive will. And so that means that it has application to the providence of God as well. He writes,

” . . .God’s will is ‘perfect’ because his wisdom is flawless. We see this in small things, perhaps sometimes in great things. The Lord is the master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives. The pieces may be strangely shaped; often we cannot see how they fit together; but eventually when the big picture is complete we will see that each piece was perfectly shaped. He leads us by ways we could not have guessed, into situations we never expected, to fulfil [sic] purposes we never could have imagined.” (p.52)

What a beautiful way to describe the believer’s perception of God’s providential care over his or her life. It is sometimes very difficult for us to understand what God is doing in our lives. But God truly is the “master of the jigsaw puzzle of our lives.” And He knows what He is doing in our lives, even when we do not. It brings to mind the old, classic hymn by William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” One of the verses of that hymn puts it this way:

“Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.”

What a comfort to know that the will of God is indeed perfect, and that behind every frowning providence He hides a smiling face. Our lives may sometimes seem like a jigsaw puzzle to us, but never to God!

J.C. Ryle on the Spiritual Use of the Law

holinessCan a sinner be justified in the sight of a holy God by works, or by obedience to God’s commandments? No, of course not. In Galatians 2:16 the Apostle Paul plainly states as much:

“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (ESV)

Notice that Paul basically states this same truth at least three (3) times in just this one simple verse. (It’s as if he is trying to emphasize his point!) No one will be justified by the works of the law. No one.

Having established that, we must be careful to maintain that although we are not in any way justified by works or by obedience to God’s commandments, yet this does not therefore mean that we as believers in Christ have no more need or use for God’s law. Quite the opposite! In his book, Holiness, J.C. Ryle writes,

“There is no greater mistake than to suppose that a Christian has nothing to do with the law and the Ten Commandments, because he cannot be justified by keeping them. The same Holy Ghost who convinces the believer of sin by the law, and leads him to Christ for justification, will always lead him to a spiritual use of the law, as a friendly guide, in the pursuit of sanctification.” (p.26)

As Ryle rightly points out, the Holy Spirit not only uses the law of God to convince or convict the believer of his or her sin, and so to drive them to look to Christ by faith for salvation from sin (often referred to as the pedagogical use of the law), but after conversion also leads that same believer to what Ryle calls a “spiritual use of the law.” What is that “spiritual use” of God’s law? It is to use it as the believer’s rule for life (often called the normative or 3rd use of the law).

To the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, the law no longer holds forth the threat of condemnation for sin, but now serves as (to use Ryle’s words) a “friendly guide” in our lifelong pursuit of sanctification.

Helpful Resources on Holiness & Sanctification

Books on Holiness.jpgI recently remarked in a sermon that if you were to go to a typical Christian bookstore, you would almost certainly find shelf after shelf of books on any number of subjects, including such things as finances, politics, psychology, raising children, successful living, and even Christian health or diet books (!). On top of it all, you would surely find all kinds of Christian fiction. But what about books about holiness? (The old saying about finding a needle in a haystack comes to mind.)

Thankfully, there are some really helpful books on the subject of holiness. Here are just a handful of them (in no particular order):

  1. Holiness, by J.C. Ryle. This is one of my all-time favorite books. It is a classic, and for good reason. It is one of those books, that I find myself turning to again and again.
  2. Rediscovering Holiness, by J.I. Packer. This was a real eye-opener for me. This was the book where I first learned that gratitude for God’s grace in the gospel of Christ is the primary motive for obedience for a Christian.
  3. The Pursuit of Holiness, by Jerry Bridges. Bridges is always, solidly-biblical, accessible, read-able, and eminently-helpful. (Is that enough hyphens and superlatives?) Another really good book by him on a similar subject – The Discipline of Grace.
  4. The Hole In Our Holiness, by Kevin DeYoung. If you are looking for a book to help you understand the Christian life – the what, why, and how of pursuing holiness and following Christ, then I highly recommend this book to you! (See my review here.)
  5. The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen. Owen can often be somewhat difficult to read, but this abridged version is an exception to that rule, and is tremendously helpful.

There are doubtless many other great books on the subject that are available (even if they aren’t the best-sellers in our day), but I hope that this short list of some of my favorites will be enough to help get you started!

John Owen on Obedience as Sons

owen-communion-with-god-2It should go without saying that believers in Christ have an obligation to obey God’s commandments. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament provides more than ample evidence of this truth.

Read through the Gospels, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands. There you will often find the Lord Jesus quoting, explaining, and applying the commandments to His hearers. A lengthy section in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) explicitly deals with a right view of God’s commandments.

Read through the Epistles, and you will find numerous imperatives and commands, even citations and quotations from the ten commandments. There is not the slightest hint that God’s moral law as expressed in the ten commandments has somehow been set aside or abrogated.

For just one such example, both the Lord Jesus and the Apostle Paul taught the continuing validity and importance of obedience to the 5th commandment. (See Mark 7:8-13; Ephesians 6:1-3.) Honoring one’s father and mother is still a basic and essential part of the life that God’s redeemed people are expected (commanded!) to live. That has not changed.

The gospel of Christ has not reduced or done away with our obligation to obey God’s commands. In fact, quite the opposite is true! The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter on the law of God, tells us the following:

“The moral law doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof; and that, not only in regard of the matter contained in it, but also in respect of the authority of God the Creator, who gave it. Neither doth Christ, in the gospel, any way dissolve, but much strengthen this obligation.” (19.5, italics mine)

So in the gospel of Christ we have even more reason (not less) to obey God’s law! Christ, in the gospel, ‘much strengthens’ our obligation to obey. (When was the last time you heard anything like that in a sermon?)

But what does such obedience look like? What is the essence of truly Christian obedience? In his book, Communion With God, the English Puritan writer John Owen (1616-1683) offers a helpful (and thoroughly biblical) analogy:

“Slaves find freedom when released from their duties. Children find their freedom in doing their duty. There is no greater mistake in the world than the idea that the freedom of sons in God’s house lies in choosing whether they will obey or not, whether they will do their duty or not. This is a freedom stolen by slaves, not a liberty given by the Spirit to sons.

“The liberty of sons is in the inward spiritual freedom of their hearts gladly and willingly obeying God in everything.” (p.160)

In Christ we are not freed from obeying God’s law, but rather for obeying it! The “liberty given by the Spirit to sons” (to use Owen’s phrase) leads us to obey God as sons, not slaves. Sons obey their heavenly Father out of love and gratitude, not out of slavish fear or for the expectation of wages, as a hired hand. As 1 John 5:3 says,

“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”

We are to keep the commandments out of love for our heavenly Father. And in Christ, by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are both enabled and led to truly love and obey God for the first time. As sons we may at times find keeping His commandments difficult, but not burdensome. And that is because, as sons, we no longer view God as a tyrant, or as a difficult taskmaster, but as our heavenly Father!

Deliver Us From Evil (The Lord’s Prayer – Part X)

Praying Hands 2In our study through the Lord’s Prayer we now come to the last part of the last request, which is “. . . deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). What are we being taught to pray here? What does it mean for us to ask our heavenly Father to “deliver us from evil”?

First (as always), we need to keep the context in view. This request is very closely-related to what precedes it. In the previous requests the Lord Jesus has just taught us to ask for forgiveness (v.12), and for grace to avoid temptation in the first place, so as to not keep on sinning in the same ways (v.13a); now he teaches us to ask for deliverance from evil (v.13b). There is a clear progression of thought in these verses.

Sometimes we set ourselves up by not avoiding the occasion to temptation and sin. We allow ourselves to go to places or spend time with certain people that we know full well will give us cause to stumble. And yet we often fail to avoid those things. Many times that is our first mistake, isn’t it? We’ve all been there at one time or another, no doubt. Have you ever heard the saying, “Bad company corrupts good morals”? (It is based on 1 Corinthians 15:33.) Is there a place or a person(s) that you know that you need to avoid for this reason? It is not without reason that we are taught to pray not to be led into temptation.

But sometimes there is just no getting around temptation. Have you ever been there? Have you ever found yourself staring temptation right in the face, even if through no fault of your own? What are you to do then? Here’s an idea: pray. It is right here toward the end of the Lord’s prayer. We must pray to be delivered from evil. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way:

“Q.106. What do we pray for in the sixth petition? A. In the sixth petition, which is, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, we pray that God would either keep us from being tempted to sin, or support and deliver us when we are tempted.”

We need to pray for the Lord’s support and deliverance when we are tempted.  We should not just think of “evil” as consisting in things such as suffering or even Satan himself (although it certainly includes those things), but also our own propensity and inclination toward sin. We are to “watch and pray” lest we enter into temptation (Mark 14:38), but when we do enter into temptation, we need to pray for God’s help and deliverance.

And none of us are sufficient for these things on our own. Which is why this request is in the first person plural (as are the others before it in v.11-13). We must pray that the Lord would deliver “us” (not just “me”) from evil. Do you pray for your brothers and sisters in the Lord this way? May the Lord’s prayer teach us to pray not just for ourselves, but others as well, to be delivered from evil.

LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART IX)

Praying HandsIn our brief study through the Lord’s Prayer we now come to the sixth request, which is “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13) . Sometimes the first half of that verse is thought to be a separate request from the latter half, and so “deliver us from evil” would then be the seventh request. Either way you slice it, the two parts are very closely-related. Simply for the sake of space, we will consider each half separately.

I must confess that I grew up reciting and praying the Lord’s Prayer in church from as far back as I can remember in my childhood. But in all that time I don’t think that I ever gave it enough thought to ask the obvious question – why do I need to ask God not to lead me into temptation? Does God ever actually lead his people into temptation? If not, is this request in the Lord’s Prayer superfluous? If so, then in what way can it be said that God does that? And why?

First things first – this request is not redundant; it is there for a reason. So we must conclude that in some way God may at times lead us into temptation. But the Scriptures are very clear that God tempts no one. James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (ESV). No ambiguity there – God tempts no one. Period.

The account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness may prove helpful here. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (ESV). So the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the place of temptation. But who did the tempting? The devil. To be led into temptation is to be tested. To actually tempt is to try to cause someone to commit sin. There is a big difference between those two things. God’s goal in testing is never to cause sin. Satan’s goal in temptation is always to cause sin.

The Lord Jesus Christ passed the test in the wilderness that Adam failed in the garden of Eden (Genesis chapter 3), and that we all fail on a regular basis. Jesus was tempted in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). That is why sinners can be saved by the “precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot ” (1 Peter 1:19, ESV).

If we would sincerely pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12), then we must also ask the Lord to keep us from temptation so that we do not just keep on committing those very same sins. A.W. Pink writes,

” . . .past sins being pardoned, we should pray fervently for grace to prevent us from repeating them. We cannot rightly desire God to forgive us our sins unless we sincerely long for grace to abstain from the like in the future.” (The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, p.117)

To desire forgiveness of a sin while not also desiring to be kept from that sin is nothing short of hypocrisy. And so the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness of our debts or trespasses, and also to pray for God to keep us from the temptation to sin as well.