How do you abide in someone you can’t see or touch or audibly listen to? When Jesus told his disciples to abide in him, was it merely for them or is it something we are called to emulate?

To the first question, Jesus most certainly expected his disciples to abide in him despite not being able to touch him and hear him and see him. After all, John 15 (where the speech comes from) is right before his crucifixion. Too often our faith is wedded to too much wooden-ness in understanding. We veer toward, “Yes, but…” Like Thomas who would not believe unless he put his hand in Jesus’ side, so also our faith is not expansive enough. Blessed are those that have not seen and yet believe–which leads to the second question.

Jesus prayed not only for his disciples in the Garden, but for all those who would hear the Good News from his disciples testimony. When he responded to Thomas that those who have not seen and yet believe are makarios (“blessed”), he had you and me in mind. What we see unfold in Scripture after the Resurrection is the kind of effulgent life he wants us to live…and abiding life.

So how do we abide?

I would suggest three ways.

Keeping His Word

Throughout John’s Gospel and his epistles, Jesus tells us that if we love him we will keep his commands. Like a father who loves his child, like an older brother looking out for his younger brother, Jesus tells us how to navigate God’s world. Do we trust him enough to actually follow his steps?

This explicit teaching is what is called the Revealed Will of God. While God is constantly working in his world for his own purposes, part of that working is his condescension to tell us how to understand his world. That is, unlike the gods of the Ancient Near East, Yahweh determined to tell his people how to live. His Law is gracious and kind to reveal his ways to us.

All the Law hangs on Jesus’ admonition to love God and people.

Throughout the New Testament we see what it looks like to abide in Christ when we hear the Apostles telling people to put others before their own whims and preferences. We see this worked out as the Spirit comes at Pentecost and the Church extends to the uttermost parts of the world.

Led By the Spirit

It is no accident that John 16’s (continued) discourse on the preferment of the Spirit’s coming follows on the heels of Jesus’ command to abide in him. While the Law is gracious and good, we botch it up with our self-seeking and short-sightedness. We need the Spirit of God to guide us into all truth.

As I shared in my sermon on Sunday, there are three witnesses: water, blood, and Spirit. The first two speak to the doctrinal clarity and objective reality of who Jesus is. The third is the subjective application of these truths into the life of the believer.

Unfortunately the Spirit is equated with emotionalism and awkward and outlandish activity by those claiming to be Spirit-led. This is an unfortunate state of affairs, indeed. While the Spirit blows where he will, and does things outside our meager understanding, this does not necessarily mean that his working in incomprehensible or outlandish or alien (more on this in the third point).

What are some ways we can be led by the Spirit?

Well, he inspired the text of Scripture and has clearly spoken there. Go there.

In Ephesians 5.18, we are told to be filled with the Spirit. How? The participles that follow this command tell us how: Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. The Spirit is guiding and directing God’s people. Go there.

It would be good to reflect on each of these four participles and consider how you might be filled with the Spirit in ever-increasing measure. Are you speaking God’s songs over people? Are you singing to soothe the angst in your own heart? Are you grateful? Are you putting others’ needs before your own–considering them more significant than yourself?

Being Attune to God’s Working

One of my charges as a pastor is to help us see God’s continual work in the world. It is easy to wax on about God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence but to deny his power and that this means right here right now. He is not all these characteristics merely in heaven. While you may say, “Obviously!” In fact, many of us affirm these aspects of God yet we live life as though he is not at work in the mundane stuff of life. We talk about him and his superintendent work int he world…but we fail to see his work in my making coffee or standing in line or talking to a stranger.

The shift in our lives happens when we see him always at work. Always. In the mundane. In the suffering and pain. In the exciting. That is God working and shaping you.

Every conversation. Every. Conversation. Is opportunity to hear God speak to you. For him to shape you. Every appointment is a “divine appointment.” He graciously guides our footsteps. The person in the checkout line needs to hear of God’s grace. Your co-worker needs to know that God loves him. The annoying neighbor needs to see God’s mercy. Your family needs to experience peace in your words and actions. These are all God’s ever-present work. His beckoning us to abide in his word and his world.

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Sanitized Christianity

Below is a letter I just sent out to our church. I believe it might encourage and enliven your own faith, and share it with you to that end.

Redeemer,

What a gift yesterday was as we celebrated Pentecost Sunday. As I shared in my opening comments, it is a sad state when the Church doesn’t even know about the glorious celebration of the Spirit’s filling of believers. This is not to chastise other churches. Rather, it is a stiff reminder of why we do what we do when it comes to the church calendar and liturgy. It roots us deep in the rich history of the church. While so many believe they are searching for the new and fresh, it is actually the firm and tried forms the church has been practicing for millennia. Surely, there are dead expressions of this beautiful liturgy. Therefore, we want to know what and why we are doing what we do to safeguard from form without substance. We want to have the skeletal work of the liturgy with the breath of life (read “Spirit”) and muscular reflex (read “walking in the light”).
With that said, as I was preaching I was struck by the beauty of considering the utter power and creative work of the Spirit. As I looked out on our fledgling congregation, it was as if I could see the small band of disciples at Pentecost—only eleven. Yet, being filled with the same Spirit who created the world. The same Spirit who filled the Apostles to speak fervently and with full conviction. This same Spirit lives within us! Have you considered the sheer magnitude of that? Your life is not a mere appendix to the story of redemption. It is a continuation of this magnificent work to go and tell other to come and see. Every conversation you have is alive with opportunity and grace. Every glance. Every moment is resplendent with the glory and presence of God. What would our lives and our world look like with a band of disciples whose lives and decisions revolve around Jesus? Not around vacations and job promotions and being thought highly of by those we so diligently seek approval from.
So much of our Christianity in Greenville is sanitized. That is, we put the Spirit’s work in a box or in a moment. We minimize him. We relegate him to private moments. In fact, he is constantly at work. He gives us every breath we have (remember Psalm 104.29-30?). What our city needs is less concern for our preening and being made much of in the eyes of others. What our city. What our world needs is Christians who really believe, and who live in accord with that belief, that Jesus is always enough. He’s enough for our pain and suffering. He’s enough for our excitement and comfort. He’s enough for my job. He’s enough for my neighbors. He’s enough for my family. He’s enough for me.
May God fill our church with his Spirit so that the watching world will indeed say, “See what way they love one another!”
May the Lord open your eyes to the beauty of his work this week,
Matt

God’s Love: Balancing Doctrine and Action

GUEST POST BY AUSTIN DONAHOO

On Sunday, Luke preached from the text of 1 John 4. As he aptly noted, the text itself holds many hours of sermon-worthy truths that could be studied and applied. One thing that Luke personally decided to hone in on is the idea that creeds and deeds cannot be separated into two foci, but they are understood as intertwined. While this is very true, similarly to Luke’s sermon, I would like to show how both are needed in the Christian life and will give several practical ways on how to put these two spiritual aspects into practice.

Love Shown in “Correct Doctrine”

Currently, the Church lives in an age where a great number of congregations believe that doctrine should not be a main focus of their work. They believe they should focus more on Jesus’ work in individual lives and love for their congregation (this is important). This is understandable especially in the South with its history of legalism and an attention to doctrinal detail to the detriment of loving the least of these. Pendulum switches like this, while understandable, show a misunderstanding of the reason to teach basic doctrine. Basic doctrine about God is not taught as a buffer for pride or for pure collection of knowledge, but rather it is so the Church can accurately know our Trinitarian God and be able to guard against any falsehood that threatens to attack the truth of the Gospel. As Luke stated on Sunday, “Love is understood when we truly understand God.” As the Church grows in its knowledge of the Lord, there is a greater ability to love him and others.

Love Shown in “Correct Action”

As I stated earlier, for this article I separated these two ideas of doctrine and action, but these two ideas cannot be separated. For example, if someone has a correct understanding of how God works, they will not live out the Christian life in a way that correctly relates to God and his Gospel. Luke elaborates on this when he explains, “To know love is not just informative, it is performative.” The God of all creation loved his people so much that he sent the Son to die for humanity and the Spirit to indwell in those who are of faith. It is a great blessing to hear this truth and to give it space in our consciousness, but knowledge of this reality gives way to transformation. It transforms one’s worldview and their response to the things that happen in their life. They see a job not only as a way to make money, but as an opportunity to share the Gospel and love their neighbor. They see their family not only as a biological connection, but the most important opportunity to exemplify the love of God. Understanding the Gospel leads to the greatest paradigm shift anyone can experience and it necessarily leads the Church to be the hands and feet of God’s love in practical ways throughout the whole world.  

Practical Ways to Implement “Doctrine”  

  • Study your Bible and Pray: While this may appear to be redundant, you cannot understand God if you do not study his Word and respond to him in prayer
  • Read Widely: It is helpful to read specifically theological books but all truth is God’s truth. Read old books as well as new books. Read great authors like St. Augustine, C.S. Lewis, etc.
  • Learn in Community: Have consistent conversations with others (especially within your church community) about what God is teaching you.

Practical Ways to Implement “Action”

  • Serve your Family: As Paul stated in his teaching, serving the family is our first ministry. It is also the most important. God’s love is clearly shown in the workings of a family.
  • Serve your Church: Christians grow within a community. Make sure to be a part of that community by serving in areas that are able to use your gifts and talents that the Lord has provided.
  • Serve in your Community: Start with your neighbors. Find needs in your community and work to fulfill those needs. Be a light for the Gospel where you work, live, and play. Make sure to use your influence to the benefit of others and for the glory of God. 

Re-Assurance of Salvation – 1John 3

 

The last two weeks we have considered two of the major themes in John’s first letter—the essence of sin and the essence of belief. Today we’re going to consider a third major theme. It really is the point at which our sin problem and our mental belief come together. That is, love. This discussion about love, though, begins at the end of chapter 2:28: And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. 29 If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him. 

Last week we saw that the Christian faith is not just a community, but a family. John continues this language by calling this church, “Little Children” and gives them a command to “Abide in him so that we can be confident when he returns.” Chapter 3 is how we go about abiding in him. This is how we fulfill the command.

Do you ever get really honest with yourself? I mean, in the moments of silence and when your defenses are down. Do you ever ask yourself, in what real way does my faith affect my day-to-day life? How does a belief in a first century Jewish man make my life any different than my neighbor who doesn’t believe in God? Like I said, it’s an honest question. It’s a challenging question. It’s a question we need to consider all the time. Too often faith can become merely theory. Belief can be merely cognitive.

But this morning, John is going to show us that sin and belief are not merely ideas without substance. Our most intimate beliefs about God and his world will always work themselves out in real life. Have you ever listened to John 15 where Jesus says, “I am the vine you are the branches. Abide in me” and thought, “How in the world do I abide in Jesus?” John is going to answer that for us.

1John 3

  1. Children of God practice righteousness

The idea of being born again is all over the place in this short letter…10x to be precise. This is the same language that Jesus uses when he spoke with Nicodemus in chapter 3 of John’s Gospel.

Our relationship with God is one that needed, not merely a fix, it needed an entire reconfiguration. Not just a few character trait improvements, but a new birth. A new creation. 

We have been born as new creatures and we, like babies, have to learn how to walk and talk and live in God’s world once we see it as he intended. Righteousness, therefore, is not merely a matter of rules that we are to keep. Righteousness is a life lived rightly in God’s world. Now I hear this and immediately think about the folks in my home town saying, “You gotta live right.” Or “He ain’t livin’ right.” This is only part of the equation. Living righteously is not merely about following marching order…it’s about following dance steps. It’s following God’s lead and being in tune with how he navigates his own world. 

There’s a movie called Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey. It’s about the life of the deceased comedian Andy Kaufmann. But there’s a documentary that was just released called Jim & Andy. In this documentary it follows Carrey throughout the filming of that movie, Man on the Moon. It’s quite surreal because Jim Carrey actually embodied the mannerisms and voice and way of being of Andy Kaufmann, not merely while the camera was rolling, but when the cameras were off. At first you think, “This is so crazy!” Then you find yourself believing that Jim Carrey is Andy Kaufmann. In fact, there’s one scene where Carrey is interacting with Andy’s family. They are talking and you think there will be a moment when they tell him to cut it out. Stop doing this. It’s not real. Instead, you see the dad and Carrey fighting. But it’s not the dad and Carrey, but the dad is talking to Jim as though he is actually his son!

This is analogous to what the Christian life is meant to be. A walking out of the life of God on earth. Of course, it is always in part. But it will be brought to completion when he returns. And all those who love him are waiting for him. They are longing for his return. They place their confidence in him. Verse 3: Everyone who hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Waiting on Jesus’ return is not about sitting around the house. It is a matter of cleaning up the house to welcome him into it.

Verse 4-10 illustrate this cleaning. But this cleaning is not a matter of cleaning to be accepted. It starts with being accepted. You are not welcoming a stranger into your house, but a long-awaited husband from war. You know him and therefore you clean. You don’t clean in order to know him.

The very ability to be able to clean our house starts with the victory Jesus won over Satan. Look at Verses 8-9: Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. Our practicing of righteousness and lawlessness starts with who our Daddy is. 

In order to understand this relationship correctly, we have to go back to the Garden. There was one Law that God gave our first parents—you can have everything here…except that one Tree. Satan crept into the Garden and asked one question: Did God really say? At the heart of this question is: “Do you really trust God?” “Don’t you think you know better?” This is the heart of what John calls lawlessness. Lawlessness is more of an attitude toward God than it is the mere breaking of God’s law. That is, to be lawless means you don’t want to live under God’s rule. 

So when a child of God transgresses or steps over God’s good boundaries…when the child of God steps on God’s toes in the dance of life—as it were—she apologizes. She recognizes she has misstepped and seeks to follow his lead again. The lawless one, the one who is still following the deception of Satan doesn’t even want to be on the same dance floor.

From Genesis 3 through Malachi is a story of God being gracious to give his Law. Other Ancient Near Eastern religions relied on priests and necromancers and diviners to tell people what the gods wanted. But the God of the Bible is not like other deities. He tells the end from the beginning. He is near to his people. He tells them exactly how to navigate and move in his world. 

So the child of God practices righteousness, but John tells us that our spiritual lives are not merely about obeying rules. We are not called to keep an account and think that we have done what God intended us to do by giving us new life. Our attitudes and actions toward each other is just as indicative of our relationship with God as doing the right thing.

2. Practicing love for each other 

Our culture has made the word “love” synonymous with affection. Emotion is one aspect of love. Biblically speaking, love is affection that works itself out in action. If I were to say, “You have to love the person sitting in front of you.” Most of us, if not all of us, would think I am telling you to like or to feel some kind of emotion for him or her. While that, of course, would be a great thing…and really is what complete love entails…it only part of the equation of love. Emotions and affection are one half of love. If I were to say, “I love my wife” but don’t lift a finger to ease her burdens or rejoice in her victories…you would rightly question my love for her.

John uses the picture of the first brothers in history—Cain and Abel—to make his point. For our purposes this morning, look at Verse 14: We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. So the converse of John’s statement would be “Whoever loves abides in life.” To love each other is to promote and encourage true living. Flourishing. 

What is the greatest picture of love? Verse 16: By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. Isn’t this what Jesus said in John 15.13: Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 

This, of course, doesn’t mean we lay down our lives as a sacrifice for sin…but could it not mean that we are to lay down our lives for each other when we sin against each other? Could it not mean that we choose to be quick to forgive and extend forgiveness? After all, listen to the verses before and after Jesus’ statement: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

But John also gives us a very challenging explanation of what it means to lay down our lives. Verse 17: 7 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.

Consider for a moment money. It is neither good nor bad. It is how we use it that determines that. But what is money. It, typically, represents our time. I say “typically” because you could receive an inheritance or win some amount of money. But, It, typically, represents our lives. When you and I give money to someone or something else, we are giving a bit of our lives to that someone or something. We are meeting their need. We believe that something is worth investing my life into. 

But our laying down our lives is not merely physically visible in the here and now, it is how you and I are re-assured of our salvation. There is a lot of talk about the doctrine of assurance of salvation. It is true. When you and I confess our sin and lay our allegiances down to King Jesus, we most assuredly are saved. Yet, as we have seen in John’s letter, the Christian life is a dance. It’s a walking in the light. 

Do you get discouraged by how you continue to struggle with the same sin? Do you feel condemned and unsure of yourself? Do you wonder sometimes if you’re a Christian? 

Where can we find such reassurance when we feel condemned? We look to God. We look outside of ourselves. Outside of our obedience. 

Surely, we are called to be pure and to obey and to walk as he walked and to talk as he talked. But any of us, if we’re honest, do not find our confidence there. We can find our assurance that we even want to obey. That is a gift from God. We can find assurance that we hate sin. That, too, is a gift from God. But these are all in part. Indeed, we continue to step on people’s toes. We continue to be tempted by the beat of the Tempter’s drum. 

So our re-assurance. Our confidence cannot find its sure footing there. 

Verses 19-21: By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.