Paul’s Call to a More Wholesome Thought Life

Late in his life the Apostle Paul was a prisoner in Rome. While there he was allowed to engage his own dwelling but was chained to a guard by a short chain (Philippians 1:7, 13,14).

Remarkably, he did not let this break his connection with churches he had planted. One of them was the church at Philippi in Macedonia. His ancient letter to the Philippians still blesses the church universal to this day when it is read and studied.

Consider a short portion of the letter in which the apostle exhorts Christians to “Christianize” their minds further (Philippians 4:8-9).

He writes, in verse 8: “… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about those things.” We can call this an exercise for enriching the Christian mind.

Whatever is true. Christians believe that God is the essence of truth. He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He is the source of all that exists, the Creator and Sustainer of all things: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To this conviction the Psalmist writes: “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89). On these truths about God and his word, Christians are to lodge their thought lives.

Think of the witness Christians can have in a world saturated with untruths: scams, frauds, hoaxes, shady schemes, and intentional deceptions. When we become Christians we are still in that world, but, with the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit, we are challenged to stand against these things and to cultivate new thought patterns to exalt and glorify God.

Whatever Is noble. We can speculate that the apostle, upon noticing the vulgar language and behavior all around him, called Christians to raise even their hidden thoughts to an elevated and righteous level. I think here in particular of the crucial importance of avoiding the scourge of pornography that defiles, cheapens, even twists the mind. Without question, the Christian faith raises our thoughts to a much more elevated standard.

Whatever is right. William Barclay writes: “It is a law of life that, if a person thinks of something often enough and long enough, they will come to a stage when they cannot stop thinking about it. Their thoughts will become quite literally in a groove out of which they cannot jerk themselves.” (Since “right” is related to “righteousness,” we can see what Paul’s assignment here is.)

Whatever is pure. The Scriptures repeatedly set purity of heart as a primary goal for all believers: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Purity is the cry of the penitent. As King David prayed after sinning grievously: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10). And as Paul says: “Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). God plants in his children’s minds our heart’s longing to be pure and we must respond in agreement.

Whatever is lovely. Elsewhere in his Galatian letter the apostle gathers a list that demonstrates what he considers lovely — he calls this list the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). They are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When these qualities rule in the heart they beautify the outer life.

Whatever is admirable. Could this mean “that which calls forth love,” as one scholar suggests? Have we not all had contact with believers whose smiles and greetings are under nearly all circumstances warm and attractive, rooted in the heart, such that we cannot help but admire them?

At this point the apostle changes the structure of his sentence to add “excellence” and “praiseworthiness” to his list — two final descriptive words that make his catalogue complete. He does not suggest that the eight traits will blossom fully and automatically or overnight.

But they will advance when we meet two conditions. First, when we open our hearts to a fuller ownership of the Holy Spirit in all things. And second, when we organize our lives around the Scriptures daily and in company with other believers.

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Re-post: Diet and Exercise for the Soul

Every day, it seems to me, I get messages from the media about what I must do to keep in the best of health. The advice has now been reduced to two points. I must (1) feed my body a proper diet — which means a  diverse selection of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, along with limited sugar and other simple carbohydrates — and (2) exercise vigorously from 30 to 60 minutes each day.

Our whole culture seems to have arrived at consensus on this. The words, “diet and exercise” have become a mantra. So, at our house we have tried to take the recommendation seriously.

But what about that aspect of our beings we call the soul? Mankind is formed by our Creator from the dust of the earth, the Scriptures tell us, but so are the lions and hippos. However, for us the Scriptures add, God breathed into that physical formation the breath of life and “man became a living soul.”

Consequently, we do not accurately say: “I am a body and I have a soul,” as though the body is the more significant aspect of our beings and our soul a  sort of attachment.  Instead, it is better to say: “I am a soul, and that soul inhabits my body.”  In saying this, we acknowledge that, as precious as our bodies are to God and to us, it is our indestructible spiritual natures that deserve our more careful attention if we must make a distinction.

How, then, is that soul to be kept in health? Just as I do for my body, I must (1) nourish it and (2) exercise it daily. With regard to nourishing my soul, here are helpful words written by J. I. Packer in his book, Knowing God: “There can be no spiritual health without doctrine,” he writes. Doctrine means organized Christian teaching. So we must seek to grow continually in Christian understanding.

After speaking to the nourishment side of things, Dr. Packer calls us to the “exercise” side of care of the soul by means of meditation. “Meditation,” he writes, “is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.”

Meditation, like gracious dining, takes time. It is often suggested that 30 minutes first thing in the morning is ideal. Just as the orchestra tunes its instruments before the concert, it is better to take time for meditation at the outset of the day, rather than after the day’s “concert”  has been played.

If we can’t make the early morning work, then we must choose another time. A college student I counseled with years ago complained that she couldn’t make the early morning hour work because she still felt too drugged from sleep. I asked her how long she took for lunches. She was a very sociable person and replied that she usually took an hour-and-a-half. I suggested she cut that time in half and slip away for a daily quiet time of Christian meditation. As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there are twenty ways.”

Meditation usually works best when it is a time for focusing on God, not our problems, and this can be done helpfully when we set our reflections on his attributes — that is, those characteristics or features of God’s being revealed in Scripture. We seek to see Him ever more clearly across our lifetimes.

For today, consider just one of them and take time to meditate on it. Consider the attribute, omnipresence, meaning our God is present everywhere — even where you are at this moment.

What scripture better than Psalm 139 will take us into the wonder of God’s omnipresence? Here, we learn that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is familiar with all my activities (verse 3). He knows what I am about to say before I say it (verse 4). I was not hidden from his all-seeing eye even during my pre-birth existence (Verse 15). All of this moves us to pray to be kept from any hidden wickedness, while at the same time being led in the ancient ways.

Image info: Ninac26 (via flickr.com)

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How Kathleen First Experienced God’s Holiness

My wife was seven years old and known as Kathleen Swallow, when her father died from complications after surgery. This left her widowed mother with six children, the seventh two months from birth, and the now-destitute family on a mortgaged farm in the dustbowl of Saskatchewan. It was 1933.

Her mother’s unmarried brother, Uncle Ossie, an engineer on the New York Railroad, wrote that if she would bring the family to Niagara Falls, Ontario, he would move from across the river in New York State and provide a home for them.

So, after going through the hectic details of auctioning off the farm while caring for an infant and six other children, this forlorn mother and children boarded a train for Ontario.

On that long and tedious trip a United Church missionary on board befriended the family. She was also traveling to Niagara Falls, Ontario, and volunteered that when the family was settled she would make sure they got to church.

Church had played no great role in the Swallow family on the prairies although occasionally in their rural community farmers arranged for the use of a one-room schoolhouse in order to attempt a simple service – a reading from the Bible and a few thoughts about that Scripture given by one of the men.

The missionary kept her word. When the family had settled in the dwelling provided by Uncle Ossie she came and took the five oldest of the seven children to the St. Andrews United Church where she herself attended.

Kathleen describes the experience as follows: After Sunday School all five were gathered up and led to the sanctuary where they sat quietly side-by-side waiting as the congregation formed.

To them, the church was a place of wonder, the large and beautiful sanctuary a new experience, so they waited in expectation.

The organist played softly as the congregation gathered. Worshipers entered and sat without conversation, waiting for the choir to appear in the the chancel.

The robed choir processed in and remained standing in the choir loft. The minister then entered, going directly to the central pulpit. Then the organ swelled, the congregation stood, and choir and congregation sang together,

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.

Holy, Holy, Holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

She recalls that the service always followed this same sequence. And her response, she remembers, was the same each time -– she, by that time an eight-year-old — was awestruck and reverent as she was aware of God’s holy presence.

Kathleen recounted all of this to me one morning recently after breakfast when we read Psalm 99 together. That psalm brought back to her the never-to-be-forgotten sense of holy awe she felt at eight years of age in that Niagara Falls church.

Psalm 99 is about the kingship of God. He is king over all the earth so let the nations tremble, the psalmist proclaims (verse 1). Also, He extols, the king is mighty and he loves justice, (verse 4).

But what caught Kathleen’s and my attention as we read that morning was that amidst these elevated affirmations about God, the great king, the psalmist proclaims one particular attribute of our God and then repeats himself twice.

Of God, the eternal king, he declares: he is holy (verses 3, 5 and 9).

The word for holy or holiness occurs more than 830 times in the Old Testament. At core it means to be separate, or set apart. Applied to God, it signifies that he is separate from and transcendent over all his creation. To reflect this, some speak of the “otherness” of God.

Holiness is God’s quintessential attribute. He is all-knowing and merciful and all-powerful, for sure, but undergirding all God’s other attributes is his holiness.

When the Niagara Falls congregation sang, Holy, holy, Holy. Lord God Almighty the holiness of our God is what the hymn invoked in an eight year old. And that is what the eight year old experienced — though in an elementary way — but cannot forget 85 years later.

Photo credit: David (via flickr.com)

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The Battle of the Christian Heart

On a visit to the Philippines, I spent part of a weekend with Pastor David Yardy in Manila. His was a newly-established church, attended by about 100 mostly young converts, many of whom were professional people.

At a steamy Sunday morning service one young man stood and spoke of his struggle with lust. At first, this seemed unusually candid to me, because during my time as pastor of a college church in the United States, sins like lust were usually confessed in private during times of counseling and prayer.

As the young man in Manila spoke I wondered how the young women present would see him from then on. However, Pastor David responded skillfully. He stood and quietly acknowledged the confession, explaining that this was among the struggles a new Christian would experience in his/her desire to be inwardly pure. He spoke clearly of the way to victory in Christ.

There was a refreshing honesty and deep seriousness about sin in that congregation that day. These Christians had recently come to faith in Christ and there was no impulse to conceal the realities of the old life.

The pastor was well aware that God willed his newborn children to be victorious not only over outward and more public sins such as stealing and lying, but also hidden “heart” sins. Pastor Yardy’s ministry was in accord with what the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians long before: So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16).

In that letter the Apostle Paul identifies eighteen sins of our fallen natures, and they can be divided into four groups.

Sensual sins: immorality (fornication, or sex outside of marriage), uncleanness (inner defilement produced by harboring salacious thoughts), licentiousness (a reckless disregard for public decency).

Religious sins: idolatry (whatever we allow to dominate our affections can create an element of worship, whether of possessions, status or even the world’s values), witchcraft (the use of magic in the calling up of evil spirits for information or advice).

There are interpersonal sins: enmity (hidden feelings of unbrotherliness), strife (inclination to create division or conflict), jealousy (causing rivalry with or even hatred of the fortunate), anger (hurtful rage), selfishness (self-absorption, egocentricity), dissension (open hostility), party spirit (divisiveness, wilful breach of relationships), envy (secret desire to deprive another of what he/she has), murder (hatred which could grow to the taking of another’s life).

And there are vulgar, coarse sins marked by loss of self-control: drunkenness and carousing.

What a cesspool of evil! Sins from this catalogue are often the cause of inner bondage, or at the root of conflict in families or Christian communities and organizations.

Only the enablement of the mighty Spirit of God can help us conquer the sinful nature. And his help is only possible if we are willing to acknowledge the reality of these darker exertions as elements of our fallenness. They cannot be educated out of existence. They cannot be disciplined into good behavior. The Apostle Paul’s remedy is much more radical. 

He writes: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). The sinful nature must be put on the cross and by faith and the use of Christian practices kept there. These practices include honest confession of the reality of heart sin, association with healthy-minded Christians, daily Bible reading, prayer, regular communal worship, and pastoral counsel if needed.

As Saint Paul exhorted long ago: live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16).

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Re-post: Is Meditation a Missing Ingredient?

In North America, Christianity as it is practiced tends to make little difference in people’s lives. There is too little evidence of holy living, and professing Christians often show the same symptoms of enslavement as the population at large: pornography addictions, addictions to over-spending, out-of-control anger, domestic violence, rudeness in primary relationships, and surprisingly high levels of divorce.

Explanations are offered. For example, a fog of skepticism, possibly engendered by the Enlightenment and the rise of science, is said to have hung over the western world for most of two centuries and this tends to choke out a robust faith. The allure of materialism is blamed, or the preoccupation with “stuff.” Even post-modernism with its denial of objective truth comes in for blame.

But believers in China can live out a triumphant faith in Christ while risking severe governmental punishment. Believers in Egypt can thrive knowing they may be roughed up or worse for their faith. Why can there not be an inner life in Christ in our western world that can liberate us from our addictions, sanctify our temperaments, and sustain real faith in a land of freedom and plenty?

In his book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer says there is an explanation. And the fact that this book has sold more than one million copies since it was first published in 1973 gives testimony that there are souls aplenty who want to know the key to that more abundant life.

His book sets forth a Calvinistic doctrine of God.* Packer writes, “There can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge.” But his purpose is not merely to dispense doctrinal truth. His larger goal is to set forth Christian truth on this subject, making it a basis for meditation. It is to take the reader from knowing about God to actually knowing God.

“Meditation,” he writes, “is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.”

Early on, the author explains how this is to be done: “We turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”

Meditation is done by Christians when they are alone, usually practicing it according to a plan and on a daily basis.

Is this a missing element in Western Christianity? Do Christians on a large scale make it a point to enrich their own experience with God every day? Do they set aside say 30 minutes or so each day to keep daily living in an eternal context? And in how many Christian homes are there family devotions that extend Sunday corporate worship to daily family worship? Furthermore, when believers come to worship on a Sunday, what spiritual energy do they bring with them?

I realize that some who come are like wounded warriors limping in from a hard-fought week. They come for renewal. Others whose faith is little more than an inherited tradition may not have much to bring. After all, a congregation is made up of people in all stages of Christian development.

But every congregation needs a core of believers who are inwardly energized daily by meditation, prayer, and praise, who bring the energy of the Spirit with them when they come to worship. This core may be found in the church board, or a Sunday School staff, or even among a number of fired-up young people, or seniors rich in faith – or all of the above. It’s this category of believers that needs to be expanded everywhere.

Years ago I read a curious story: In a sparsely-wooded area in Africa people walked from great distances to worship together on a Sunday morning. After the service it was their custom to light a large bonfire in the church yard, a sort of celebratory event. A visitor from North America witnessed this and asked how they could light such a fire when there was very little wood in the area. He was told, “All believers bring their own supply of wood with them, and that’s what makes the big fire possible.”

If we are twice-born believers, larger numbers of us need to commit or re-commit ourselves to the daily practice of meditation as a means of knowing God in personal and fresh ways. This would help greatly to deepen the faith of the church in the western world.

*I find great value in the book but I cannot square the author’s double predestination (P. 79) with the Golden Text of the Bible, John 3:16.

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Nurturing A Healthy Christian Mind

UpPhilippians is a love letter to a young church for which the Apostle Paul has a great fondness. It is written while he is under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a sentence that may condemn him to death.

One of his counsels to believers is — to think! Not stream of consciousness thinking but thought in an elevated and disciplined way. Here’s how he puts it:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things . . .  And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8,9).

Ponder with me these targets of wholesome thought.

Whatever Is True. There is mathematical truth (two plus two equals four, everywhere and always). And there is historical and scientific truth. But the truth Paul has in mind is spiritual or moral truth. Elsewhere he writes of truth “as it is found in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:21). Jesus himself said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). And throughout the Gospels countless times he introduces his teachings with, “I tell you the truth.”

We Christians are to hold truth in high esteem. Therefore, we turn to the Gospels often and search for its words of truth in a spiritual sense as grounds for our meditation. As a consequence we are lovers and practitioners of truth.

Whatever Is Noble. Weymouth translates the word as “whatever wins respect.” We might say, whatever is honorable, or whatever we are inspired to look up to. There is so much in our world that is crass and vulgar. Paul calls us to avoid reflecting on that which is cheap by consciously fixing our thoughts on that which is noble.

Whatever is Just. There is a connection in the original language between the words “just,” “right” and “righteous.” Paul’s counsel is, think on whatever assures of fair play or meets just standards. When moral concerns are so readily set aside by deception and favoritism in our times Christians are called to reflect on what is just in order to practice being just.

The psalmist wrote in the Shepherd’s Psalm, “He guides me in paths of righteousness”(Psalm 23:3). That imagery of a righteous or straight path is repeated again and again in the Old Testament, suggesting the path the Good Shepherd leads us on is always free of hidden obstacles that would trip us up (Jeremiah 31:9).

Whatever is Pure. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, constantly preach that God is not pleased with the mere external ceremonies of religion, however elaborate and well performed; he wants the hearts of his people to be pure and undivided toward him.

And that of course requires a Spirit-disciplined thought life, and active avoidance of whatever would sully a pure heart — such as internet pornography, movies that promote lust and literature that excites lewd thoughts. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8).

Whatever is Lovely. Weymouth translates this word, “loveable.” The NRSV uses the word, “pleasing.”

A vase can be lovely. So can a flower garden, a bride – or the life of a saintly person of our acquaintance. We are to align our minds to see such lovely things as we move through each day.

Whatever is Admirable. This is an extremely rare word, used only once by the apostle according to The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. It might call us to look for what is of value in any situation and to speak in a kindly spirit. It is not a call to forgo judgment when moral integrity is under siege but to affirm goodness insofar as that is possible.

If anything is Excellent or Praiseworthy, Think on These Things. The Contemporary English Version gives this rendition: “Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.” It strikes me that the Apostle, having finished his list, is doubling back to be sure the list will have a permanent place with his readers as they think Christianly about all of life.

This brief scripture gives us a pattern for nurturing a healthy Christian mind across a lifetime. And the conclusion of this passage assures us that as we do this, “God who gives peace will be with us” (Philippians 4:9).

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Meditation for Good Health

Every day, it seems to me, I get messages from the media about what I must do to keep in the best of health. The advice has now been reduced to two points. I must (1) feed my body a proper diet – which means a broad daily spread of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, and modest portions of carbohydrates — and (2) exercise it vigorously from 30 to 60 minutes each day.

Our whole culture seems to have arrived at consensus on this. The words, “diet and exercise” have become a mantra. So, at our house we try to take the challenge seriously.

But what about that aspect of our beings which we call the soul or our spiritual natures? Man is formed by our Creator from the dust of the earth, the Scriptures tell us, but so are the lions and hippos. However, for us the Scriptures add, God breathed into that physical formation the breath of life and “man became a living soul.”

Consequently, it is not best to say: “I am a body and I have a soul,” as though our bodies are the more significant aspects of our beings and our souls are sort of attachments. It is better to say “I am a soul, and I have a body it inhabits.” In saying this I acknowledge that, as precious as our bodies are to God and to us, it is our indestructible spiritual natures that deserve our more careful attention.

So, how is that soul to be kept in health? I must (1) nourish it and (2) exercise it daily just as I do my body. With regard to nourishing it, here are words written by J. I. Packer in his book, Knowing God: “There can be no spiritual health without doctrine,” he writes. Doctrine means organized Christian teaching. So we must always be seeking to grow in Christian understanding.

After speaking to the nourishment side of things, Dr. Packer calls us to the exercise side by means of meditation. “Meditation,” he writes, “is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.”

Meditation, like good dining, takes time. It’s often suggested that 30 minutes taken first thing in the morning is ideal. Just as the orchestra tunes its instruments before the concert, so it is better to take time for meditation at the outset of the day, rather than after the day’s concert has been played.

If we can’t make the early morning challenge work, then we must choose another time. A college student came to see me once who complained that she couldn’t make the early morning hour work because she still felt too drugged from sleep. I asked her how long she took for lunches. She was a very sociable person and replied that she usually took an-hour-and-a-half. I suggested she cut that time in half and slip away for a quiet time of Christian meditation as a daily practice. For all of us, as the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there are twenty ways.”

Meditation usually works best when it is a time for refocusing on God, not our problems, and this can be done helpfully when we set ourselves to reflect on his attributes – that is, those revealed characteristics or features of God’s being through which with growing clarity we see who he is.

Any good Bible Dictionary will give you a list of most if not all God’s attributes. But for today, consider just one of them and take time to meditate on it. Consider the attribute, “omnipresence” – meaning our God is present everywhere.

What scripture will take us into the wonder of God’s omnipresence better than Psalm 139? This Majestic God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is familiar with all my activities (verse 3). He knows what I am about to say before I say it (verse 4). I was not hidden from his all-seeing eye even during my pre-birth existence (Verse 15). All this moves us to pray to be kept from any hidden wickedness, while at the same time being led in the ancient ways of righteousness (verses 23, 24).

In our culture we consider it important to keep on the move, so stopping to meditate may strike us as wasting time. We just want to plunge into the business of whatever we are doing – including even our praying. But, if we take time for meditation on this great truth of God’s omnipresence to nourish us, the result will be improved health for our souls, and channels will be opened for periods of effectual prayer!

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Image info: Ninac26 (via flickr.com)

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Is Meditation a Missing Ingredient?

In North America, Christianity as it is practiced tends to make little difference in people’s lives. There is too little evidence of holy living, and professing Christians often show the same symptoms of enslavement as the population at large: pornography addictions, addictions to over-spending, out-of-control anger, domestic violence, rudeness in primary relationships, and surprisingly high levels of divorce.

Explanations are offered. For example, a fog of skepticism, possibly engendered by the Enlightenment and the rise of science, is said to have hung over the western world for most of two centuries and this tends to choke out a robust faith. The allure of materialism is blamed, or the preoccupation with “stuff.” Even post-modernism with its denial of objective truth comes in for blame.

But believers in China can live out a triumphant faith in Christ while risking severe governmental punishment. Believers in Egypt can thrive knowing they may be roughed up or worse for their faith. Why can there not be an inner life in Christ in our western world that can liberate us from our addictions, sanctify our temperaments, and sustain real faith in a land of freedom and plenty?

In his book, Knowing God, J. I. Packer says there is an explanation. And the fact that this book has sold more than one million copies since it was first published in 1973 gives testimony that there are souls aplenty who want to know the key to that more abundant life.

His book sets forth a Calvinistic doctrine of God.* Packer writes, “There can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge.” But his purpose is not merely to dispense doctrinal truth. His larger goal is to set forth Christian truth on this subject, making it a basis for meditation. It is to take the reader from knowing about God to actually knowing God.

“Meditation,” he writes, “is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.”

Early on, the author explains how this is to be done: “We turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”

Meditation is done by Christians when they are alone, usually practicing it according to a plan and on a daily basis.

Is this a missing element in Western Christianity? Do Christians on a large scale make it a point to enrich their own experience with God every day? Do they set aside say 30 minutes or so each day to keep daily living in an eternal context? And in how many Christian homes are there family devotions that extend Sunday corporate worship to daily family worship? Furthermore, when believers come to worship on a Sunday, what spiritual energy do they bring with them?

I realize that some who come are like wounded warriors limping in from a hard-fought week. They come for renewal. Others whose faith is little more than an inherited tradition may not have much to bring. After all, a congregation is made up of people in all stages of Christian development.

But every congregation needs a core of believers who are inwardly energized daily by meditation, prayer, and praise, who bring the energy of the Spirit with them when they come to worship. This core may be found in the church board, or a Sunday School staff, or even among a number of fired-up young people, or seniors rich in faith – or all of the above. It’s this category of believers that needs to be expanded everywhere.

Years ago I read a curious story: In a sparsely-wooded area in Africa people walked from great distances to worship together on a Sunday morning. After the service it was their custom to light a large bonfire in the church yard, a sort of celebratory event. A visitor from North America witnessed this and asked how they could light such a fire when there was very little wood in the area. He was told, “All believers bring their own supply of wood with them, and that’s what makes the big fire possible.”

If we are twice-born believers, larger numbers of us need to commit or re-commit ourselves to the daily practice of meditation as a means of knowing God in personal and fresh ways. This would help greatly to deepen the faith of the church in the western world.

*I find great value in the book but I cannot square the author’s double predestination (P. 79) with the Golden Text of the Bible, John 3:16.

(Next week I’ll offer some simple suggestions for any who wish to give Christian meditation a bigger place in their lives.)

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Living Together Unmarried – Is there a Word from God?

It’s easy these days to gather arguments to justify the practice of living together unmarried. Consider: the practice has almost become mainstream; society no longer attaches much of a stigma to the arrangement; because of “the pill” it’s less risky than it used to be; urban life is more anonymous so people don’t care; the custom to marry later in life makes the period of waiting for full sexual gratification too long; no one should enter a lifetime relationship like marriage without a trial run.

Against all these arguments, the major Christian response is God’s inspired and authoritative word. To be sure, there are supplemental arguments that bear out the trustworthiness of the Scriptures on this matter. But at core and in the moment God’s word speaks with finality. Consider a verse written to early Christians that fits the present situation.

“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterers and the sexually immoral” (Heb. 13:4). Ponder five nuggets of truth embedded in this verse.

First, “marriage” can be defined. The word stands for a singular covenanted relationship between one man and one woman which the Scriptures assume from beginning to end to be ordained by God. Of the union of Adam and Eve they say, “The two shall be one.” (Gen. 2:24). In support, Jesus said, “Therefore, what God has joined together let man not separate” (Mark 10:9).

The Bible from the start holds this to be a sacred truth, however much it was attacked throughout Bible history by bigamy, polygamy, divorce, prostitution, etc.

Second, our verse says that within this union the marriage bed should be kept pure. Here’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases that in THE MESSAGE: “… guard the sacredness of sexual intimacy between wife and husband.” The intimacy of which the verse speaks is to be restricted. It was not to be defiled before or during marriage by illicit relations.

Third, there are two words that label such intimacy sinful if experienced outside a covenanted marriage. The first is “adultery.” This word stands for sexual sin against a marriage by the intrusion of a third party. The damage it exacts can be seen everywhere in our broken society – it sparks distrust, recurring rages, family breakups, divorce, and violence even to the extent of murder.

Fourth, the writer adds, “sexual immorality” (fornication) as an offence. This word stands for sexual relations between unmarried persons of the opposite sex. Thus, what is blessed by God within marriage is strongly forbidden as sinful outside of that bond.

Finally, the verse looks beyond the passion of the moment. It says men and women who choose to live together unmarried with someone single or already married may escape the judgment of society but will suffer the judgment of God. It may be judgment in this life through self-acting moral laws (Gal. 6:7,8). Or it is certain to be judgment at the Great White Throne judgment at the close of history (Rev. 20: 11-15).

How seriously should we take such words from the Scriptures? In the closing words of the Bible Our Lord speaks of the Eternal City into which his righteous ones will be invited. But, he says, “Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).

But these sobering words are followed by a great invitation to be saved from such judgment: “The Spirit and the bride say ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22: 17).


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How Total Is Total Depravity? Some Thoughts and Reflections

Photo credit: David Gunter via flicker.comI was asked recently about the Christian doctrine of total depravity. The questioner was a Christian brought up in Wesleyan circles.

“Don’t we believe that the depravity of man is not total?” she asked. Then she added, “If it were total, wouldn’t that leave man devoid of anything that God could appeal to in calling him to salvation?”

I replied that Wesleyans among others believe that the image of God in man (the Imago Dei) is blemished but not destroyed by Adam’s fall. All humans, however sinful, continue to bear the image of God. And there is a prevenient grace (the grace that goes before) that keeps even the vilest of sinners capable of responding when the gospel appeal is made.

Her question prompted me to write down some notes about the subject of total depravity.

The question is, how total is total depravity? Besides being a profound theological question, this is also a serious pastoral question.

In the eighteenth century John Fletcher, the Swiss-born immigrant, went from his homeland to England, was converted in a Methodist setting, mastered the English language, and was ordained as an Anglican (Episcopalian) minister. He served a church at Madeley and became known as Fletcher of Madeley. He was chosen by John Wesley to be his successor but preceded Wesley in death.

Fletcher was learned in theology and wrote Five Checks to Antinomianism, which were an answer to the extremes of Calvinism in the England of his times. Here is a statement from him on the seriousness and extent of sin — which can be regarded as a fair presentation of Methodist theology on this question.

“In every religion there is a principal truth or error which, like the first link of a chain, necessarily draws after it all the parts with which it is essentially connected. This leading principle in Christianity . . . is the doctrine of our corrupt and lost estate; for if man is not at variance with his Creator, what need of a Mediator between God and him? If he is not a depraved, undone creature, what necessity of so wonderful a Restorer and Saviour as the Son of God? lf he be not enslaved to sin, why is he redeemed by Jesus Christ? If he is not polluted, why must he be washed in the blood of the immaculate Lamb? If his soul is not disordered, what occasion is there for such a divine physician? If he is not helpless and miserable, why is he perpetually invited to secure the assistance and consolations of the Holy Spirit? And, in a word, if he is not born in sin, why is the new birth so absolutely necessary that Christ declares with the most solemn asseverations, without it no man can see the kingdom of God?”

For Wesleyans, how total is total depravity? We are sometimes charged with having a casual or shallow view of sin, of being semi-Pelagians. (That is, to believe that one is saved by God’s grace but man adds something to it by his cooperation. The issue is, does Christ get all the merit for salvation or is it shared?)

Here’s an excerpt from Wesley’s Sermon 44, on Original Sin: “ ‘God saw all the imaginations of the thoughts of (man’s) heart . . .’ It is not possible to find a word of a more extensive signification. It includes whatever is formed, made, fabricated within; all that is or passes in the soul; every inclination, affection, passion, appetite; every temper, design, thought. It must of consequence include every word and action, as naturally flowing from these fountains, and being either good or evil according to the fountain from which they severally flow.”

He does not use the term “total depravity” here, but that is certainly what he is describing. When Wesley revised the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion into his Twenty-Four (plus one), he shortened the one on sin but retained the words: “. . . it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil and that continually . . .”

Do the Scriptures support such sobering words? “Sin lurks deep in the hearts of the wicked, forever urging them on to evil deeds” (Psalm 36:10). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:9ff).

Twentieth century Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner writes, “Sin understood in the Christian sense, is the rent which cuts through the whole of existence.”

Here are some clarifications of the doctrine of total depravity by an American theologian of our own day, Donald Bloesch. As I see it, he is trying to bridge the theological differences in the evangelical ranks and make a statement for contemporary “evangelicalism.” I believe him to be a moderate Reformed scholar attempting to correct or clarify the extremes of Reformed doctrine. Please note the qualification he adds for each affirmation.

Bloesch writes that total depravity can be thought of as having four meanings:

“First, it refers to the corruption at the very center of man’s being, the heart, but this does not mean that man’s humanity has ceased to exist. Second, it signifies the infection in every part of man’s being, though this is not to imply that this infection is evenly distributed or that nothing good remains in man. Third, it denotes the total inability of sinful man to please God or come to him unless moved by grace, though this does not imply that man is not free in other areas of his life. Fourth, it includes the idea of the universal corruption of the human race, despite the fact that some peoples and cultures manifest this corruption much less than others.”

The goodness that Bloesch acknowledges is of a social or moral nature. It in no way contributes to one’s salvation. All saving virtue is with Christ.

One can scarcely miss the fact that among evangelicals at the present time the doctrine of sin as total depravity does not hold a compelling place in study or preaching. With perhaps the following results:

1. A cardinal doctrine of Christianity is being seriously muted. The three major issues of the Christian scriptures are God, sin and redemption. It is right to talk to our people about the love of God, but that is not enough. The seriousness of sin must also have a prominent place in our message.

2. The blessing of grace can be felt at the heart level only by those who have felt the sting of their own sinfulness. “Where sin abounded, grace much more abounded” (Romans 5:20b) A shallow view of sin means a shallow view of grace. And perhaps an anemic and watered-down sense of God’s forgiveness.

3. This neglect may account for a casual view of holiness on the part of many believers. The clear command of both Testaments is, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15,16). The consequence of casualness in this matter may be a stunting of character formation among Christians and a scarce witness to the everyday world. But as well, with this casualness may come a reduced ability to take responsibility for wrongdoing of the more subtle kind.

When we as believers remember well “the pit from which we were digged” — or the sins from which we are delivered — and beyond that the heinousness of sin in all its expressions, it gives depth to our devotional life, our love of the Scriptures, our need for public worship, and our faithful service for our Lord.

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