Mornings at the Mission: The Patient Compassion of God

Each morning I offer a short devotion to the men under my care in the dorm. This is the spot where I share them with you, and keep a record of them for myself on the off chance I ever need them again.

 

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The Lord works vindication
    and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.
(Psalm 103:6-14)
Have you every read Romans 7? In it Paul wrestles with himself… it seems like no matter how hard he tries he always caves in, doing the evil he does not want to do, and failing to do the good he does want to do. I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that? Like there is this one thing that keeps you locked up in the darkness and there’s no way out; like no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to rule your temper, control your addiction, say no to just one more drink… you feel like a failure with no way out. And if there is a God–which seems pretty far-fetched to you at the moment–surely he’s pissed and wants nothing to do with you. Surely he’s rolling his eyes in disgust… “there he goes again,” you can almost hear him saying, “giving in to the same old sin. What a mess.”

 

If that’s how you feel today, I have some good news for you. God is not disgusted with you. The Bible tells us that he “works for vindication and justice for all who are oppressed,” and that he “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” It also tells us that he is patient and compassionate towards us, and–perhaps my favorite phrase in this Psalm–that he “remembers that we are dust.” God knows how frail we are. He knows that our flesh is strong, and that we don’t have the strength to overcome our vices on our own. That’s the beauty of the gospel: Even though God had every right just to abandon us to our self-destruction, he chose to intervene. He sent his Son to deal with our sin, paying the restitution perfect justice demanded, and securing the redemption of all who would believe–those whom he had set his love upon from eternity past. Now “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), for as the Psalmist writes: “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;” and “as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).

 

Here’s some more good news: Redemption doesn’t stop with Justification. Once we have received Christ by faith our debt to God’s justice has been paid in full, but God isn’t done with us yet. He wants to see us transformed, he wants us to experience the wholeness–the shalom–he intended for creation before the fall happened back in Genesis 3. And so his Spirit works patiently within us, dealing with areas of woundedness in our hearts, applying his word as a healing balm, leading us into newness of life that we might more perfectly reflect the image of the God whose glory we were designed to magnify in harmony with all of creation.

 

If you belong to Jesus Christ through faith, you are eternally accepted by God, and no amount of failure can change that. He knows our frailty, and delights to demonstrate patience and compassion towards us, as he works within us to bring about a glorious restoration.

J. Gresham Machen on Conviction of Sin

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Without the conviction of sin there can be no appreciation of the uniqueness of Jesus; it is only when we contrast our sinfulness with His holiness that we appreciate the gulf which separates Him from the rest of the children of men. And without the conviction of sin there can be no understanding of the occasion for the supernatural act of God; without the conviction of sin, the good news of redemption seems to be an idle tale. So fundamental is the conviction of sin in the Christian faith that it will not do to arrive at it merely by a process of reasoning; it will not do to say merely: All men (as I have been told) are sinners; I am a man; therefore I suppose I must be a sinner too. That is all the supposed conviction of sin amounts to sometimes. But the true conviction is far more immediate than that. It depends indeed upon information that comes from without; it depends upon the revelation of the law of God; it depends upon the awful verities set forth in the Bible as to the universal sinfulness of mankind. But it adds to the revelation that has come from without a conviction of the whole mind and heart, a profound understanding of one’s own lost condition, an illumination of the deadened conscience which causes a Copernican revolution in one’s attitude toward the world and toward God. When a man has passed through that experience, he wonders at his former blindness. And especially does he wonder at his former attitude toward the miracles of the New Testament, and toward the supernatural Person who is there revealed. The truly penitent man glories in the supernatural, for he knows that nothing natural would meet his need; the world has been shaken once in his downfall, and shaken again it must be if he is to be saved.

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 105-106)

Charles Spurgeon on How to Read the Bible (Part 2)

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Part 2 of a sermon delivered in 1879, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, and first published in Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 25 (London, 1880).

I scarcely need to preface these remarks by saying that we must read the Scriptures. You know how necessary it is that we should be fed upon the truth of Holy Scripture. Need I suggest the question as to whether you do read your Bibles or not? I am afraid that this is a magazine-reading age, a newspaper-reading age, a periodical-reading age, but not so much a Bible-reading age as it ought to be. In the old Puritan times men used to have a scant supply of other literature, but they found a library enough in the one Book, the Bible. And how they did read the Bible! How little of Scripture there is in modern sermons compared with the sermons of those masters of theology, the Puritan divines! Almost every sentence of theirs seems to cast side lights upon a text of Scripture; not only the one they are preaching about, but many others as well are set in a new light as the discourse proceeds. They introduce blended lights from other passages which are parallel or semi-parallel thereunto, and thus they educate their readers to compare spiritual things with spiritual. I would to God that we ministers kept more closely to the grand old Book. We should be instructive preachers if we did so, even if we were ignorant of “modern thought,” and were not “abreast of the times.” I warrant you we should be leagues ahead of our times if we kept closely to the Word of God. As for you, my brothers and sisters, who have not to preach, the best food for you is the Word of God itself. Sermons and books are well enough, but streams that run for a long distance above ground gradually gather for themselves somewhat of the soil through which they flow, and they lose the cool freshness with which they started from the spring head. Truth is sweetest where it breaks from the smitten Rock, for at its first gush it has lost none of its heavenliness and vitality. It is always best to drink at the well and not from the tank. You shall find that reading the Word of God for yourselves, reading it rather than notes upon it, is the surest way of growing in grace. Drink of the unadulterated milk of the Word of God, and not of the skim milk, or the milk and water of man’s word.

But, now, beloved, our point is that much apparent Bible reading is not Bible reading at all. The verses pass under the eye, and the sentences glide over the mind, but there is no true reading. An old preacher used to say, the Word has mighty free course among many nowadays, for it goes in at one of their ears and out at the other; so it seems to be with some readers—they can read a very great deal, because they do not read anything. The eye glances but the mind never rests. The soul does not light upon the truth and stay there. It flits over the landscape as a bird might do, but it builds no nest there, and finds no rest for the sole of its foot. Such reading is not reading. Understanding the meaning is the essence of true reading. Reading has a kernel to it, and the mere shell is little worth. In prayer there is such a thing as praying in prayer—a praying that is in the bowels of the prayer. So in praise there is a praising in song, an inward fire of intense devotion which is the life of the hallelujah. It is so in fasting: there is a fasting which is not fasting, and there is an inward fasting, a fasting of the soul, which is the soul of fasting. It is even so with the reading of the Scriptures. There is an interior reading, a kernel reading—a true and living reading of the Word. This is the soul of reading; and, if it be not there, the reading is a mechanical exercise, and profits nothing.

Now, beloved, unless we understand what we read we have not read it; the heart of the reading is absent. We commonly condemn the Romanists for keeping the daily service in the Latin tongue; yet it might as well be in the Latin language as in any other tongue if it be not understood by the people. Some comfort themselves with the idea that they have done a good action when they have read a chapter, into the meaning of which they have not entered at all; but does not nature herself reject this as a mere superstition? If you had turned the book upside down, and spent the same times in looking at the characters in that direction, you would have gained as much good from it as you will in reading it in the regular way without understanding it. If you had a New Testament in Greek it would be very Greek to some of you, but it would do you as much good to look at that as it does to look at the English New Testament unless you read with understanding heart. It is not the letter which saves the soul; the letter killeth in many senses, and never can it give life. If you harp on the letter alone you may be tempted to use it as a weapon against the truth, as the Pharisees did of old, and your knowledge of the letter may breed pride in you to your destruction. It is the spirit, the real inner meaning, that is sucked into the soul, by which we are blessed and sanctified. We become saturated with the Word of God, like Gideon’s fleece, which was wet with the dew of heaven; and this can only come to pass by our receiving it into our minds and hearts, accepting it as God’s truth, and so far understanding it as to delight in it. We must understand it, then, or else we have not read it aright.

Certainly, the benefit of reading must come to the soul by the way of the understanding. When the high priest went into the holy place he always lit the golden candlestick before he kindled the incense upon the brazen altar, as if to show that the mind must have illumination before the affections can properly rise towards their divine object. There must be knowledge of God before there can be love to God: there must be a knowledge of divine things, as they are revealed, before there can be an enjoyment of them. We must try to make out, as far as our finite mind can grasp it, what God means by this and what he means by that; otherwise we may kiss the book and have no love to its contents, we may reverence the letter and yet really have no devotion towards the Lord who speaks to us in these words. Beloved, you will never get comfort to your soul out of what you do not understand, nor find guidance for your life out of what you do not comprehend; nor can any practical bearing upon your character come out of that which is not understood by you.

Mornings at the Mission: Yearning for Home

Each morning I offer a short devotion to the men under my care in the dorm. This is the spot where I share them with you, and keep a record of them for myself on the off chance I ever need them again.

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By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord‘s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

(Psalm 137:1-6)

This powerful Psalm was written while the people of God were exiled in the nation of Babylon.  This was the judgement God had promised his people would come to pass if they refused to repent. Israel had ignored the warnings of the prophets, and so here they were. Their homes had been burned to the ground, their families separated, anything of value they owned had been taken. They were foreign captives in a strange land with no rights, and no hope that they could see of ever going home and rebuilding their lives.

Perhaps your feeling similarly hopeless right now, like everything has come crashing down around you. You’ve been living in “exile” for so long that you’ve given up all home of restoration.

Interestingly, the Bible says that all of us are in exile, followers of Christ even more so than others. The fact is that none of us belong in a fallen, broken, corrupt world. We were made to have a perfect relationship with God, one another, and the good world God had made. Sin has distorted all that, and we can barely live in harmony within ourselves, never mind with God or one another. We were made for wholeness, but we live in brokenness. We live in exile and we long for home.

Some of us go looking for wholeness in the wrong places, trying to get a taste of the Eden we lost. We look to relationships, food, money, alcohol… desperately grasping for the life we were made for. The reality is, though, that these things cannot truly get us home. They can only temporarily distract us. And though they promise hope, in the end they can only offer us more destruction. We have forgotten the songs of Jerusalem; we now sing only songs of the Fall.

Perhaps it is time we remember Jerusalem. Perhaps it is time we admit to ourselves and to God that the longing in our heart is for our heavenly home, and it is only there we can find the wholeness we crave… the Bible calls this shalom. The good news is that Jesus came to bring us home, to lead us back from exile, out of our bondage to sin and corruption and into a new life in His Kingdom (Colossians 1:13). It is Him that we long for, He is our peace (Ephesians 2:14). His body was split asunder like the red sea in the book of Exodus, that we might pass through his blood and be cleansed, washed, made new, made whole.

True, we only get glimpses of our true home in this life. If we are to make it to the new Jerusalem we must first follow Jesus through the scorched desert of this present age. That means we must first suffer before we find release; we must first die to our old way of life before we can truly live. But we have the sure hope that one day we will make it there. Sure as Christ rose from the dead, sure as the Scriptures are true; we are promise that “He who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of redemption” (Philippians 1:6). He will come back for His Children; He will make all things right.

Mornings at the Mission: Psalms of Ascent

Each morning I offer a short devotion to the men under my care in the dorm. This is the spot where I share them with you, and keep a record of them for myself on the off chance I ever need them again.

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Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
    O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my pleas for mercy!
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    that you may be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
    from all his iniquities.

(Psalm 130)

Three times a year, the people of God were required to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As they went, they would sing Psalms such as this one. Since Jerusalem was situated on a hill, regardless of where you were traveling from, you would always go “up” to Jerusalem, thus Psalms sung as pilgrims ascended to the holy city were given the name “Psalms of ascent.” Their purpose was to help pilgrims prepare their hearts for worship.

This particular psalm traces a movement in the singer’s heart that begins with despair over sin, moves to joy in the mercy of God, and then blossoms into genuine longing for communion with God.  Verse 3 is worth considerable meditation: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” As the Psalmist approaches to worship, he is reminded of God’s holiness… if He gave us what we deserved (justice) we would be completely undone! But instead (in Christ) he lavishes His mercy upon us, even going so far as to adopt those whom He draws to himself into His family (John 6:44, 1:12). We closed with an exhortation: Just as the psalmist recognized that his only hope to stand in the presence of a holy God was to throw himself upon Yahweh’s mercy, so we too must recognize that our only hope in life and in death lies in the mercy of God shown to us in Christ. For those of us who belong to Christ we rejoice in his mercy, that “with the LORD is unfailing love. His redemption overflows” (Ps 130:7, NLT)!

Friend in Christ, be confident that His grace is fully sufficient to cover all of your iniquities, heal all of your wounds, and instill in you enduring peace and joy. The blood is applied; Christ is enough.

J. Gresham Machen on Miracles and the Message of the New Testament

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It may certainly be admitted that if the New Testament narrative had no miracles in it, it would be far easier to believe. The more commonplace a story is, the easier it is to accept it as true. But commonplace narratives have little value. The New Testament without the miracles would be far easier to believe. But the trouble is, it would not be worth believing. Without the miracles the New Testament would contain an account of a holy man–not a perfect man, it is true, for He was led to make lofty claims to which He had no right–but a man at least far holier than the rest of men. But of what benefit would such a man, and the death which marked His failure, be to us? The loftier be the example which Jesus set, the greater becomes our sorrow at our failure to attain to it; and the greater our hopelessness under the burden of sin. The sage of Nazareth may satisfy those who have never faced the problem of evil in their own lives; but to talk about an ideal to those who are under the thralldom of sin is a cruel mockery. Yet if Jesus was merely a man like the rest of men, then an ideal is all that we have in Him. Far more is needed by a sinful world. It is small comfort to be told that there was goodness in the world, when what we need is goodness triumphant over sin. But goodness triumphant over sin involves an entrance of the creative power of God, and that creative power of God is manifested by the miracles. Without the miracles, the New Testament might be easier to believe. But the thing that would be believed would be entirely different from that which presents itself to us now. Without the miracles we should have a teacher; with the miracles we have a Savior.

(J. Gresham Machen,  Christianity and Liberalism, 103)

J. Gresham Machen on the Uncompromising Message of Jesus

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Jesus did not invite the confidence of men by minimizing the load which He offered to bear. He did not say: “Trust me to give you acceptance with God, because acceptance with God is not difficult; God does not regard sin so seriously after all.” On the contrary Jesus presented the wrath of God in a more awful way than it was afterwards presented by His disciples; it was Jesus–Jesus whom modern liberals represent as a mild-mannered exponent of an indiscriminating love–it was Jesus who spoke of the outer darkness and the everlasting fire, of the sin that shall not be forgiven either in this world or in that which is to come. There is nothing in Jesus’ teaching about the character of God which in itself can evoke trust. On the contrary the awful presentation can give rise, in the hearts of us sinners, only to despair. Trust arises only when we attend to God’s way of salvation. And that way is found in Jesus. Jesus did not invite the confidence of men by a minimizing presentation of what was necessary in order that sinners might stand faultless before the awful throne of God. On the contrary, he invited confidence by the presentation of His own wondrous Person. Great was the guilt of sin, but Jesus was greater still. God, according to Jesus, was a loving Father; but He was a loving Father, not of the sinful world, but of those whom He Himself had brought into His Kingdom through the Son. The truth is, the witness of the New Testament, with regard to Jesus as the object of faith, is an absolutely unitary witness. The thing is rooted far too deep in the records of primitive Christianity ever to be removed by any critical process. The Jesus spoken of in the New Testament was no mere teacher of righteousness, no mere pioneer in a new type of religious life, but One who was regarded, and regarded Himself, as the Savior whom men could trust.

(J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 84-85)