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The issue of self-control is much more extensive than we might think initially. We normally think of self-control in conjunction with anger. Typically, we consider a person who is easily angered to be a person with a lack of self-control. But the topic of self-control takes us to the heart of one of the main themes in Scripture, which is our sanctification.

The process of sanctification is largely about self-control or about learning to think, speak, and act according to God’s principles rather than according to what comes “naturally,” which is some manifestation of our fallen natures. Self-control, then, has to do with subjecting our fallen natures—our sinful impulses—to the Word of God.

 

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. (Pro. 16:32)

The importance of this issue is clearly established in this single verse in which we find Solomon’s opinion regarding self-control or self-rule. Note the extreme comparisons he draws. One who is “slow to anger” is compared to “the mighty” and one who “rules his spirit” is compared to “he who captures a city.”

Initially, we would assume there would be no beneficial comparison to be made between a man who is slow to anger and those labeled “mighty.” The word Solomon uses is gibbor, which refers to a man of great strength or a man of great courage. This word conveys the sense of the heroic, the kind of person legends are made of, the kind of person who accomplishes seemingly impossible feats and faces dangers and threats that would make most others tremble. But Solomon says that the man who is slow to anger is better than such a man. He does not simply say that a man who is slow to anger is like a mighty man or similar in constitution to the mighty man; he says that a man who is slow to anger is superior to the man of great strength or the man of great courage.

Who do we admire most—the person who controls his anger or the person who demonstrates unusual strength and bravery? Who should we admire most? The first question is answered by what we observe in this world and the second question is answered by the Word of God. A man who rules his spirit is considered of better character and is considered a better man than he who captures a city.

Implied here is insight regarding the nature of man. If control of our initial impulses is defined as a good thing, then that must mean that those initial impulses are bad things; and that tells us something, therefore, about ourselves. It tells us that we are, by nature, given to reactions and responses that are negative in character. So this verse reflects the Bible’s teaching concerning the nature of fallen man.

Additional Verses

A quick-tempered man acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated. (14:17 )

Solomon says that a man who is “quick-tempered acts foolishly.” Notice that this description is the opposite of the man in 16:32 who is described as “slow to anger.” There you’ll recall, Solomon uses a word that refers to having patience. Here, two words are used that are translated “quick-tempered” and one of them (qatser) refers to a lack of patience.

This is interesting. In just two verses, we’ve discovered that patience (or the lack thereof) is one of the core elements of self-control. This implies that one of the keys to self-discipline is learning to be patient with circumstances and people. And patience is one of the hallmarks of spiritual maturity in the Scriptures. This is true, I think, because patience implies trust in God and contentment with what He has ordained.

A man of great anger will bear the penalty, for if you rescue him, you will only have to do it again. (19:19)

Briefly, this verse speaks of habitual lack of self-control. There is a danger in failing to exercise self-discipline. The danger is that your impulsiveness, which is nothing more than an immediate expression of your fallen nature, becomes your pattern of conduct. You will rarely find a man who loses his temper in a significant way only once in a while. Normally, if a man is easily provoked by circumstances or words, you’ll find that he is frequently provoked by circumstances or words.

Keeping away from strife is an honor for a man, but any fool will quarrel. (20:3)

Solomon sets before us two kinds of behavior, two kinds of people, two descriptions of character. Self-control may manifest itself in avoiding a circumstance, not simply in reacting patiently to a circumstance. That’s the idea in this verse. If he can avoid it, a wise man will not put himself in a position where there is likely to be strife. This phrase takes us in yet another direction in our understanding of self-control. Here the notion of discernment comes into play.

When a man avoids strife, Solomon teaches, he has done an honorable thing. How different this is from the way we operate so often! We sometimes think that we must enter into strife in order to make our point and so that we make sure our opinion is heard. Our natural tendency is to create strife, not avoid it.

Practical Responses

I would offer three short suggestions:

One, make sure you understand how fundamentally important this issue is. As I tried to make clear, self-control deals with the very heart of who we are, how we think and behave; self-control is self-discipline and that is what we are concerned with when we think of our sanctification. This is not just a matter of controlling our tempers, it is a matter of determining that by which our lives will be characterized.

Two, understand that self-control, as fundamentally important as it is, begins with our temper or our handling of those natural impulses that rise up in us in response to circumstances. Yes, there is much to the topic of self-discipline because it is such an essential aspect of our existence, but it begins with simple, everyday situations in which we have opportunities to give way to expressions of our fallen natures or subdue them for God’s glory.

Three, every person, from children to adults, has room to improve in this matter of self-control. Don’t think that because you don’t lose your temper often that you have no problem with self-control. Self-discipline touches many aspects of our lives. There are obvious examples where self-control is needed, and then there are some not-so-obvious examples where self-control is needed. Some examples are seen by many people, and some examples are known only to you and God. Therefore, meditate on these proverbs, memorize them, pray that God will cause the characteristics commended in the proverbs to be true of you.

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Some Thoughts on Thankfulness

Psalm 77

Introduction

One of the most difficult challenges we face is that of developing a genuinely thankful attitude. Because we are sinners, the concept of acknowledging a source outside ourselves, a source that is responsible for the things in life that we consider good and desirable, a source that gives but does not require repayment, can be most uncomfortable. To be thankful, we must first admit that we are the recipients of so much that we did not pursue and so much that we could not achieve on our own under any circumstances. The concept of giving thanks also requires us to admit our limitations, especially in light of the fact that we are spiritually crippled by sin.

I believe that developing a thankful attitude, one that endures throughout the year and one that seriously influences the way we think about ourselves and our nation and our relationship with God is of fundamental importance. Living without thankfulness in our hearts produces a false sense of security and a false apprehension of what we are able to do as human beings.

We are, by nature, selfish, self-centered people and we have to train ourselves to be grateful, not only to other human beings, but especially to our Creator. I also want to point out the Bible has a tremendous amount to say about this topic of thankfulness. Based upon this fact and the prominent place given to thankfulness in our development as Christ’s disciples, I believe it is safe to assume that God is pleased when His people behave contrary to their fallen natures and actually raise their eyes to heaven and praise Him for all that He has bestowed upon us.

You probably encounter very few genuinely thankful people when you leave your home during the week. Often, either directly or through the media, you encounter selfish people, people who want everything they have and more, people who think they deserve a better life than what they are experiencing. This is not really a surprising attitude when you remember that we are sinners; and one thing that sin does is make us complainers.

In Psa. 77, the writer provides us with steps which, if followed consistently, will gradually produce and sustain an atmosphere of thanksgiving in our hearts and homes. The historical setting for this Psalm is uncertain. Circumstances were such that the writer was emotionally overwhelmed. It could have been that the nation was experiencing a particularly difficult time or perhaps this Psalm only reflects a personal experience of the writer. Whatever the case, we can learn something about the state of the writer’s mind from the tone of this Psalm.

Psalm 77:1 My voice rises to God, and I will cry aloud; my voice rises to God, and He will hear me. 2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; in the night my hand was stretched out without weariness; my soul refused to be comforted. 3 When I remember God, then I am disturbed; when I sigh, then my spirit grows faint. 4 You have held my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I have considered the days of old, the years of long ago. 6 I will remember my song in the night; I will meditate with my heart, and my spirit ponders: 7 Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favorable again? 8 Has His lovingkindness ceased forever? Has His promise come to an end forever? 9 Has God forgotten to be gracious, or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion? 10 Then I said, “it is my grief, that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” 11 I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. 12 I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. 13 Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God? 14 You are the god who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples. 15 You have by Your power redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. 16 The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were in anguish; the deeps also trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth a sound; Your arrows flashed here and there. 18 The sound of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; the lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters, and Your footprints may not be known. 20 You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

We can conclude that the writer passed through a time of desperation and doubt. He speaks of seeking the LORD throughout the night (v. 2). His soul was so troubled that he could not sleep and didn’t know what to say (v. 4). The writer thought much about the past—perhaps remembering better times or times when the LORD came to his aid (vv. 6-8). Whatever happened led this writer to wonder if God had forsaken him forever. Would he ever again experience God’s favor? Had God withdrawn His grace? (v. 9) In his intense grief, this man thought that perhaps “the right hand of the Most High has changed.” (v. 10)

For us to gain the most from this Psalm, we need to understand the state of the writer, which is indicated in the verses I just cited. I want to take time, therefore, to define three of the words that are used in these opening verses. This will give us insight regarding the anguish being experienced by this writer as he turns to the LORD for help.

In the second verse, Asaph, the author of this Psalm and one of the leading figures in the establishment and use of Psalmody in the worship of God, speaks of “the day of [his] trouble.” He uses a Hebrew word (tsarah) that refers to severe anguish and affliction. This is not a case of a writer having a “bad day.” This man was experiencing deep distress and his whole life was unsettled as a result.

In the third verse, Asaph states that thoughts of God “disturbed” him. Here he uses a word (hamah) that refers to a loud roar, a frightening clamor, or a threatening growl. At this point in his Psalm, Asaph could not even think about God without great unrest in his soul because his situation made it appear that God had gone away.

And finally, in verse four, we have another word that is also translated “troubled,” but it is not the same one used earlier. This time, the writer states that he was so troubled, that he was unable to speak. The Hebrew term in this case (paam) means “to be persistently beaten.” The picture is that of a man overwhelmed by an adversary who is being crushed under the attack.

With all that in mind, we can now ask an important question: How does one recover from such spiritual and emotional depression? This writer reveals a method of dealing with his circumstances that brought stability. He was able to replace his doubt and depression with thanksgiving. The formula contained in this Psalm can serve all of God’s people. We need not be in the condition experienced by this writer before we make use of his wisdom.

What, then, did this writer do that can be imitated by us? What steps did he take that can be repeated by us? The answers are given in vv. 11-15. Just after the writer tells us how distraught he was, he also tells us what he did to relieve his fear and regain his confidence so that he could respond to his situation as a thankful man instead of a fearful man.

  1. Thankfulness comes when we remember the deeds of God (v. 11)

The writer reached the point where he thought God had deserted him. From this pit of despair come these words: “I shall remember the deeds of the LORD; surely I will remember Thy wonders of old.” (v. 11) This writer could find no comfort in his present circumstances. He had considered various explanations, including the idea that the LORD had forsaken him. But, before he is lost in total despair, he does something that turns his situation around. He begins to think about what God had done for him and his people. He reflected on the past to gain comfort and confidence in the present. Therefore, instead of continuing to dwell on his present misery, he found solace in the past works of God.

This is where the turn-around begins. God’s deeds are spectacular; they are incredible. They reveal a God who rules, loves, and provides, not a God who terrorizes, hates, and withholds. To think that this God would actually care for us while we live out our few years on this earth is also an amazing notion. This is what the writer of this Psalm does. He thinks on these and other truths about God. From this point on, the tone of this Psalm changes dramatically. This passage becomes a hymn of praise and thanksgiving.

The lesson here is obvious. If you wish to maintain the proper attitude toward life and toward God, you must remember the past wondrous deeds of God. You must not forget what He has done for you and your family. You must not forget how He has cared for you and how He has comforted you and how He has given you purpose and understanding. If you wish to create a spirit of thanksgiving, take time to remember the ways in which God has expressed His love for you in the past. Make this a regular practice now and even throughout the year.

  1. Thankfulness comes when we meditate on the deeds of God (v. 12)

An important element is added in this second step. We tend to miss the point when the Old Testament Scriptures talk about something being “remembered.” We think that means to recall something to mind and then be off to the next thought or activity. But in the Hebrew mind, to remember something involved more. And this writer explains this concept clearly when he says that beyond merely remembering God’s past acts, he will contemplate them: “I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds.”

For the Hebrews, to remember something was to ponder it. The writer means that as he remembered God’s past acts, as he remembered things God had done before, he took the time to linger over them in his mind. This brought satisfaction to his troubled soul.

What is pictured here is a sincere and prolonged reflection. It’s the kind of thing we don’t do very often these days. We are too busy to linger over the promises of God and we are too busy to ponder what God did for us last year or five years ago or twenty years ago. We are not people who mediate on such things for any length of time. And, as a result, we are spiritually poorer than we need be. This man paused long enough to draw lessons from God’s past actions. This is something that takes time and dedication.

As this writer meditated on the past, he recalled that God had always shown Himself to be gracious and compassionate. He had never broken His promise. He had never forsaken His own. Based upon this knowledge, the writer was strengthened. His confidence was renewed. In spite of the trying circumstances he was facing, he was able to compose himself and control how his circumstances affected him rather than being at the mercy of that which he could not control.

  1. Thankfulness comes when we have the proper opinion of God (vv. 13-15)

This third step is actually a product of the first two. When you remember something and then ponder it, you obviously become more familiar with it and gain a more accurate perspective. The same is true with God:

13 “Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God? 14 You are the God who works wonders; You have made known Your strength among the peoples. 15 You have by Your power redeemed Your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph.

In this Psalm, the writer takes us to the expected result of having meditated on the acts of God in his past. This exercise naturally served to remind the troubled writer of God’s character. God’s character is revealed in His works for His people; this man, who was so distraught at one point, is rescued from that condition by thinking on God’s ways and, thereby, remembering who God really is and what God is really like.

We don’t want to miss this simple truth: God’s past actions reveal truths about His nature. You’ll notice that three chief attributes stand out in these verses. First, God’s past manner showed that His ways are holy (v. 13). The writer’s circumstances are immediately put into perspective when he remembers God’s holiness. God had not been overcome; this man’s plight was not beyond the perfect awareness and control of God. Regardless of how circumstances appeared, therefore, the writer was reminded that all of God’s actions are pure. He cannot be charged with unfairness.

Second, God’s past manner demonstrated that He is a God Who routinely works wonders (v. 14). If anything is going to give you comfort during a trial, it’s the knowledge that God is a God who works wonders. As he thought about past situations, this writer remembered that it is not an unusual thing for God to deliver His people from the most threatening of circumstances. He recalled times when the nation, or perhaps he personally, had been involved in a difficult situation. How did God respond on those occasions?

Third, God’s past ways reminded this writer that God is a God of salvation (v. 15). Imagine that you are surrounded by vicious enemies and imagine that, as far as anyone can tell, this is the end for you. And then you remember that the LORD is the God of salvation. Redemption characterizes all that God does. The restoration of His fallen creation is the aim of God’s activity in the lives of human beings. Even when God’s people suffer, there is redeeming value to it.

This man is fortified with this truth. He learned from the history of the nation and his personal experiences that God brings about trying circumstances in order to refine His people and produce greater glory for Himself in their lives. Whatever the writer was now facing could be viewed in the light of God’s master plan of restoration.

Having a proper opinion of God will always lead to thanksgiving. Those who desire to be characterized by thankfulness must spend time cultivating this proper opinion. In addition to His written word, nothing better educates us about the nature of God than His actions. Remembering them, meditating on them, and drawing lessons about God from them—this is the formula that produces a reverence for God and reverence is inevitably followed by thanksgiving.

Here, then, are three steps that will create an atmosphere of thanksgiving for you and your family. Remember what God has done in past days. Remind yourself of what God has done for you. When you call God’s past acts to mind, take the time to meditate on them. Talk about God’s care with others and help them extract lessons from those experiences.

When this pattern is followed, trials become our instructors and we come away from that testing more confident in God, with a greater understanding of His nature and with a more stable hope regarding the days ahead. And that, as this Psalm teaches us, will nurture a thankful spirit in our hearts throughout the year.

Understanding Our Trials

James 1:2-18 (part 2)

Introduction

I noted in the last sermon that this letter is addressed to Jewish believers who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and who were, in some cases, facing severe trials. James is writing to Jews who had believed in Jesus as their Messiah. It appears that these people were formerly associated with the Church in Jerusalem but were forced to flee when persecution broke out following the death of Stephen.

REVIEW

The first section of this epistle has to do with gaining a Biblical perspective on our trials. We covered only the first point made by James, which is concerned with gaining a proper (or Biblical) understanding of our trials. I want to take a couple of minutes to review his teaching, which is found in vv. 2-4:

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Most of us understand from experience that trials interrupt the normal routine of life and can shatter our confidence and disturb our comfort. Trials cause anxiety, sleeplessness, distraction, and even prevent us from being productive. Knowing, as we do, how trials can affect us, we wondered how James could say what he does in v. 2. How could he expect these believers to maintain a joyful countenance when they were being persecuted and when they were seeing friends and loved ones abused, and when they knew that returning home was an impossibility?

The answer comes in the next verse: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (v. 3) It is knowledge or understanding of the nature of trials that permits the believer to face them and remain joyful. Perspective is the key, as it is in so many areas of our Christian experience. James tells his readers to be joyful and he tells them how they can be joyful: “know that your trial—the testing of your faith—has a design and the design is your endurance or perseverance in the faith.”

Knowing that trials actually purify faith, James adds: “Let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (v. 4) Trials come to us periodically to advance our maturity with the goal of a whole and fully developed faith at some point in the future. Trials, therefore, are beneficial. As God’s people, we should interpret our hardships as grounded in His love and purposes for us.

END OF REVIEW

  1. The Purpose of Our Trials (vv. 5-11)

5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. 9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

This second point is taught in vv. 5-8 with an illustration following in vv. 9-11. The key to understanding these verses is remembering the context. James is talking about trials and is addressing Christians presently facing displacement and persecution. Following this passage, the same general topic continues as he explains the difference between trials and temptations.

Verses 5-11, therefore, must be interpreted as having to do with this prevailing theme. When James writes “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God…,” he still is thinking in reference to the trials being experienced by these believers. Most interpret vv. 5 ff. apart from the context. But, if taken in context, the “wisdom” promised must have something to do with the trials we endure. It seems clear, then, that v. 5 is written as instruction regarding the particular trials that believers experience.

This passage, nevertheless, has frequently been wrongly interpreted and applied. We have to discern how these verses fit into the overall context of the topic of trials, which is being explained by James. He is saying that if you do not understand why a trial has come upon you, you should pray and ask God for the wisdom to respond honorably and perhaps even discern the purpose. God will give wisdom to the believer who is being tested so that he might better understand particular trials and, therefore, benefit from them more quickly and endure them more gladly.

I look at v. 5 as a marvelous promise from God. James instructs his readers to pray to God and ask for understanding of their trials so that they will be able to see the goal that is being accomplished by their suffering. And this exhortation is accompanied by the promise: “let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”

God does not desire to hide from you His purpose in testing you. The purpose of a trial, remember, is the refinement of your faith. How can you be strengthened and caused to grow if you don’t even understand what God is doing or why He is doing it, at least in a general fashion?

Having discernment regarding our trials is a tremendously comforting gift from God. Having discernment helps us fight against despair and it helps us maintain hope since we know God is working in us and there will be an end to the hardship. When we can see the end for which a trial has come, when we can understand what it is about our faith that needs refinement, then we can be thankful for trials, as James taught in the previous section.

Nevertheless, as I said before, I’m convinced that very few Christians avail themselves of this promise in God’s Word. We pray, but we pray incompletely; we pray for God to sustain us, which is proper, of course, but we sometimes don’t go beyond that and seek understanding. We tell ourselves that we must accept whatever comes and in this way, which is certainly true, but we have given a promise and should not hesitate to take advantage of God’s willingness to grant us insight.

We must remember, especially during our trials, that God is a Being with purposes. And He has revealed Himself to be a God of compassion and a God whose nature makes it impossible for Him to treat us in an unrighteous manner. We must keep in mind these facts about God’s nature when we are confronted by trials that He has appointed for us. We should readily seek to understand why He has appointed our times of testing.

Notice the important qualifier added by James: “But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (v. 6) It does you no good, in other words, to ask God for wisdom regarding your trials if you don’t really believe He will give you that wisdom.

James says that you must ask “in faith,” that is, in the belief that God will do what is promised in v. 5. If you do not ask “in faith,” James warns, you are going to be tossed about like the surf of the sea. He means that you will be unsettled by your circumstances far more than is necessary. You will experience about and that will increase your anxiety and all of this is traceable to a lack of wisdom regarding how God leads us as His children.

James describes such a man. He should expect nothing from the Lord because he is “a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (vv. 7, 8) The word translated “double-minded” means just that—“having two minds.” And the term rendered “unstable” means “restless” or “fickle.” Without faith in God’s willingness to give wisdom, as James describes in v. 5, the man who is passing through a trial is going to be most uneasy. His double-mindedness only ends up adding to the severity of his trial, which only makes matters worse for him and those around him.

Now I must pause for a moment and admit that I do not believe nor expect you to believe that our testings in this life are always easy and that all we have to do is praying everything will be just fine. And as I speak about how to respond to the trials that God ordains for us, I do not mean to discount the harsh aspects of what we must face. And this is not what James is teaching.

He is teaching that there is a measure of discernment that God can provide for His people when they suffer. He is not teaching that there’s a formula for you to implement that will illuminate all of the unpleasant elements of the severe trial to which I referred previously. What James promises is that there is spiritual strength and insight provided by God who ordained the trial. This does not mean that our trials will be free of anxiety and it does not mean that we will simply “breeze through” any situation we happen to face in this life.

It does mean that God is able and willing to shepherd you through whatever it is He has determined is for your good and His glory so that, during those dark times, we may know for certain that God is with us and that He is working out His perfect will for us and that He has not and will not abandon us, but will bring glory to Himself through our misery. And that is knowledge that can cause us to have a measure of peace in our hearts that would otherwise not be possible without this promise from God and His willingness to keep His word.

I am sure you will remember something that the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians as his letter was coming to a close. They, too, had experienced a measure of testing as they embraced the gospel and began to organize themselves and, in particular, provide ongoing support for Paul. As a matter of fact, Paul wrote these words while imprisoned for his labors on behalf of Christ and the gospel.

While he is in the middle of a severe trial himself, the apostle urges the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always, which is an admonition that carries much significance since it was written by this servant during one of his extended trials. After encouraging joy at all times, Paul adds:

4:6 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Is this statement really different from what James writes? What is Paul’s counsel when it comes to being able to rejoice in all things? His counsel is prayer, his counsel is to seek God’s help and reveal your heart to Him. And then there is that wonderful promise, which is so similar to what James says: “and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

If God supplies that which “surpasses all comprehension,” that means that we cannot attain it without His help. We cannot rejoice in the Lord always unless we are seeking God’s grace to persevere. We cannot count it all joy, regardless of what we face in life, as James exhorts, unless we turn to God and, again, seek his grace so that we had a measure of understanding. And that understanding, that discernment, as Paul declares and as James promises, keeps us grounded and hopeful.

As I stated, what follows in vv. 9-11 is an illustration of what James has just written.

9 But the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position; 10 and the rich man is to glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away. 11 For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.

James picks two extremes in the social order to illustrate the manner in which trials should be viewed and the positive results that trials accomplish. First, James speaks of “the brother of humble circumstances.” (v. 9) The word used to describe this first subject (tapeinos) literally means “not rising far above the ground.” Used figuratively, it refers to a lowly condition, a position of humility or, in some cases, a circumstance involving intense grief. Obviously, James has in mind a believer who is not wealthy, a man who, in fact, lacks most of the comforts of life. He is not necessarily destitute, but he is not far from that state.

How does that brother respond to the trials of life? How does he react to the fact that God has ordained such trying circumstances? Remembering James’ earlier command, “Consider it all joy, my brethren,” we have to conclude that James expects a man in such needy circumstances to react in the same manner as any other believer. Here, James says that this man is to “glory in his high position.” Note that language: he is to glory in his high position. How can this be?

The word “glory” here means “to boast” or “to rejoice.” How can the poor brother “boast” in his poverty? How can the poor man “rejoice” in his low estate? How can he give thanks, which is implied by the words of James, for such a life when he is tested daily by his situation? And how can such a circumstance be called a “high position,” indicating that it is a place or condition of honor? The answer is found in the previous section. He is to rejoice and find cause for giving thanks, not in spite of his suffering, but because of his suffering.

This brother knows that his testing is designed by God for his good; he knows that his trials are going to produce in him a complete faith, one that cannot be shaken by adversity. This is a great advantage to the brother of humble circumstances. He is daily being taught that having or not having is not the primary concern that should occupy his thoughts; he is daily reminded that what matters is knowing God and serving Him with all of his heart and strength. The brother of humble circumstances truly is blessed because his life is a continuing testimony to the sufficiency of God, to the willingness of God to supply his needs, and to the fact that God takes care of His own.

Being needy is a blessing, James teaches, a blessing, not a curse. It is a place of honor because the needy man must learn to rely upon his heavenly Father. The needy man cannot rely on his riches, for he has none; the needy man cannot be led away from devotion to God because he is so dependent upon God.

Notice what James says, by way of contrast, concerning the rich man. If the poor brother is to boast in his high position, then the rich man is to “glory” in his humiliation. (v. 10) Here, James offers a perspective on the trials that the rich man encounters. The rich man needs to learn the lessons that the poor man knows because trials are his life. The rich man faces all the temptations that the poor man does not face. The rich man may very well come to count on his possessions or on his ability to provide abundantly for himself. Therefore, his trials are designed to humble him, while the needy man’s trials are designed to exalt him.

The rich man must remember, James writes, that “like flowering grass he will pass away.” The grass that is one day beautiful to behold, is the next destroyed by the hot sun and scorching wind. The rich man must keep in mind that his many things will not endure any longer than he endures in this life—“so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away.” Therefore, the rich man’s boast or source of glory must be in something other than his wealth. James says he should boast in the humility that he learns from being tried by the Lord. The rich man who encounters trials has much to lose, while the poor man has nothing to lose.

By citing these two examples, James illustrates how wisdom is to be found in the midst of trials. The brother of humble circumstances prays and discerns that he is, in fact, being exalted by his trials. The brother of considerable means prays and discerns that he is, in fact, being humbled by his trials. In both cases, what is caused by the trials is exactly what each man would need. The poor brother needs to be lifted up so that he does not despair; the rich brother needs to be abased so that he is not overcome by pride and a sense of self-sufficiency.

James shows how trials come to all and are needed by all. It is not just the poor man who needs to learn to trust God more and it is not just the rich man who needs to learn to trust himself less. All Christians need to learn the lessons that trials teach and James shows how there is wisdom in every trial when he cites these two extreme cases. His message is that no matter who you are, your faith needs refinement and no matter what your lot in life, you need to endure testing. No one is an exception because trials refine the heart of man before God.

We have this marvelous promise from God. He tells us to “ask in faith” for wisdom when we are undergoing a trial; He promises to give us wisdom and discernment so that we might develop at least a measure of discernment regarding our trials. We need to understand that this brings great stability to our lives.

A number of years ago, I was in the middle of some trying situation. I don’t even remember exactly what the issue was, but I do remember that I was totally absorbed in it and the trial was causing me a great amount of anguish. It was at that time that I came upon this passage in James and read it in a manner that I had never done before. I saw v. 5 and for the first time in my life, the verse made sense in context. Therefore, I did exactly what James advises and I began to pray for discernment. I asked God to give me an understanding regarding my situation. I wanted to know what outcome was intended by my trial.

One night, while I was sleeping, I woke up suddenly with a clear illustration of my trial in my head. At that very moment—and, as I recall, it was in the middle of the night—the purpose of my present trial became crystal clear. I remember thinking, “Now I understand exactly what is going on and why.” What happened was not a direct revelation of any kind, it was only God answering my prayer and allowing my mind to discern His purposes and the knowledge happened to come to my consciousness at that particular moment—no doubt because, even while I slept, my soul was greatly troubled.

I can tell you that I was so relieved, not because the trial was over, but because I understood why it was happening and I understood what was being accomplished by it. That was a definite turning point in my understanding of how to react to trials. I now pray not just for the grace to endure, but for an understanding or discernment of why the Lord has ordained the circumstance.

Matters do not always become as clear as they did in my quick illustration, but I have found that God does provide comfort, guidance, and, as it pleases Him, some discernment regarding what is transpiring. And this helps me keep in mind that what has come upon me has been appointed by God; and then all of the wonderful things that I know about God’s nature and His magnificent benevolence toward us comes into play.

When you are tested, when your faith is being refined, pray and ask God for wisdom so that you might understand what is being accomplished and pray for the grace to endure. Imagine how much better that is than sitting around wondering and fretting, which only adds to your anxiety.

Trials come to all of God’s people from God. In the illustration which James uses in vv. 9-11, we learn that trials are the great “leveler” of all men. No one escapes trials because no believer is beyond the need of refinement. When you are enduring a trial, you want to ask “Why me?” or “Why now?” Instead, James teaches that we should “consider it all joy” because our trial is for our benefit and we are not alone. Trials convince us of God’s love and His good intentions for us. Trials train us to depend on Him, regardless of our position in life.

Let’s pray.

Understanding Our Trials

James 1:2-18 (part 1)

 

Introduction

When it comes to our salvation, the means by which a person comes to have sins forgiven and inherit eternal life is identical in all ages and for all believers. The living out of that experience, however, can vary widely from person to person, place to place, and even generation to generation. I am referring to that which is not necessarily standard for all Christians and that is the path that God has ordained for His people.

 

We are all born again in the same manner, yet as our lives progress, we have experiences that God has ordained particularly for us. I’m thinking of the trials that every believer must face in life. We all come to the gospel in the same way, as I mentioned, but we do not all have the same record when it comes to our ongoing sanctification.

 

James is not so much concerned about how a person is born again as he is with how they live the life that God provides in Christ. Among the many edifying topics in this book is that of trials, by which I mean the episodes that our Heavenly Father appoints for us for our own particular good as one of His children and for His ultimate glory as we persevere by grace. This is the first major topic addressed by James as this letter begins.

 

This letter is addressed to Jewish believers who, due to persecution, were scattered throughout the Roman Empire and who were, in some cases, facing severe trials. James’ use of the phrase “to the twelve tribes” indicates his audience. He is writing to Jews who had believed in Jesus as their Messiah.

 

In vv. 2-18 of the first chapter, James talks about trials. He explains the design of our trials and writes about the purpose behind them. James also distinguishes between trials that God ordains for us and the temptations to sin that arise from within us.

 

  1. The Design of Our Trials (vv. 2-4)

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

 

How many times have you heard someone question God, even God’s existence, when passing through some difficult circumstance? People who know very little of Scripture often jump to the conclusion that they are being treated unfairly and that must be evidence that there is no benevolent God. For reasons that are grounded in our twisted and sin-corrupted fallen natures, we assume, when we are ignorant of the Bible, that, if there is a God, He would not allow such things to happen to “good” people.

 

It is true that the majority of these kinds of reactions come from people who know nothing about the gospel and, therefore, nothing about the nature of God, His purposes, or His ways. But then there is another category of people who sometimes face extremely challenging circumstances. I am referring to those who are born again, who love God and are attempting to live in an honorable fashion. How should those who are assured that they are God’s children react when they face persecution or hardship?

 

This is not a sermon on God’s sovereign rule over His creation, but we need to be reminded once in a while just what sovereignty means. If God is sovereign over all things, then He is, of course, sovereign over the little things. James is not speaking of how God raises up or puts down world leaders and entire nations; James is concerned with something much smaller in scope—and that is the course of your life.

 

Let me provide you with a simple formula: According to the teaching of Scripture, God oversees everything, including the events of our daily lives. And if God oversees all things, then all things must be serving His perfect purposes. And if all things are serving His perfect purposes, then trials must also be interpreted in that light.

 

Many Christians, nevertheless, when preparing to write about the trials of this life, would not begin by saying: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials”! By definition, trials are not pleasant experiences. Trials are times when we are pressed, times when we are strained and forced to endure extraordinary circumstances, times when we have no direct control, times when the thought of facing the next few hours or days frightens us.

 

Trials can cause us to fear, doubt, cry, worry, and lose sleep. Trials interrupt the normal routine of life and disrupt families; trials can shatter our confidence and disturb our comfort. Trials hurt; they can be emotionally costly. They can cause everything else in life to come to a grinding halt. Yet this man declares: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials!

 

James, of course, was well acquainted with trials. As a leader in the early Church, he faced much opposition and was eventually executed, perhaps by stoning, according to various sources. Therefore, whatever we conclude about James, we cannot assume he was out of touch with reality. We must conclude, I believe, that James had a different perspective on trials, not a denial of the reality of trials and difficulties, but a viewpoint informed by a source other than his own heart.

 

Remember that James is writing to people who are presently dispersed in strange places, presently suffering far from their homes. How do you tell them to rejoice even though you know they are in miserable, dangerous, and frightening circumstances? Was it realistic for James to expect these particular Christians to maintain a joyful countenance when they were being persecuted and when they were seeing friends and loved ones abused, and when they knew that returning home was an impossibility?

 

What is joyful about that? What, in that description, is cause for gladness? How can such counsel be given to people whose entire existence has been turned upside down and the cause is directly traceable to their relationship with Jesus Christ? When I think of some contemporary Christian leaders who preach a gospel of prosperity and freedom from worry, I must assume that they have either never read what the Bible says about the course of life to be expected by a Christian or they simply choose to teach something else in order to gain some personal advantage.

 

You cannot stand before people and declare to them that God only wants them to be content and happy and free from burdens and still maintain that you are a preacher of the Word. This kind of heretical instruction brings untold misery into the lives of people who, after trying diligently to follow the preacher’s instructions regarding how to gain happiness in this life, still face trials and still get sick and still lose people they love and still suffer in various ways. They are left to conclude that they simply do not have a faith that is strong enough to believe in what God really wants for them.

 

James had an understanding of the nature of trials. He knew the purpose of trials, for example. Notice what follows that first exhortation: “knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (v. 3) Here is one of the keys to understanding our trials. When we know the design of our trials, we can also begin to comprehend why James speaks as he does.

 

The word translated “endurance” (hupomone) refers to a basic attitude or frame of mind, one which could be described as “patience” or “steadfastness.” In this case, James means having patience through or during a trial; the translation “endurance,” therefore, is good. Remember that James is writing to people in seriously threatening situations; yet, he tells them to be joyful and he tells them how they can be joyful: “know that your trial—the testing of your faith—has a design and the design is your endurance or perseverance in the faith.”

 

Let’s think about what James has just said for a moment. When you find yourself in the midst of some trial and it is causing you anxiety or some uneasiness, knowing that the circumstances have been designed to bring about your growth in holiness does establish a perspective for you from which to analyze, not only what you are experiencing, but also your reaction to it.

 

And, if I may, I want to emphasize that this issue of our reaction to trials is of paramount importance. If God sends trials to further our maturity in Christ, then that truth makes our attitude and our conduct during trials most significant. The perspective James gives is essential to our reaction to trials. What James provides helps us have peace of mind during our testing.

 

James teaches us that trials are not designed to destroy us, but to strengthen us. Trials are not given by God to see if He can make us fall, but are sent by God to train us to stand strong. The trials God appoints for us are training so that we become more like our Savior and leave more and more behind of our old self. Knowing that trials actually purify faith, James adds: “Let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (v. 4) Trials will, in time, James assures us, make us “perfect and complete” so that we are “lacking in nothing.”

 

The idea behind those two words, “perfect and complete,” is that of a process coming to an end after it has accomplished what it was designed to accomplish. Trials come to us periodically to advance our maturity with the goal of a whole and fully developed faith at some point in the future. Considered in this light, trials are more than helpful, they are necessary. It is only through trials that this maturing process can take place.

 

The most severe trials that I have faced as a Christian have consistently left me with a greater apprehension of the faith, a greater understanding of and appreciation for God, and an improved ability to live before Him honorably. Think of one of those severe times of testing you’ve endured. Would you not say that, in the end, it was a positive influence in your faith? Would you not say that, as a result of that trial, you are more mature in Christ and better able to discern God’s leading? Some of you, I know, can look back and now realize that the tears and the anxiety and the uncertainty that you experienced in a trial actually served to produce growth in you that otherwise may never have occurred.

 

If we put together all the information that James supplies, then we can return to that first statement and understand how and why he says: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials.” The testing of our faith is necessary, beneficial, and completely desirable—if we truly want to advance in Christ. We are imperfect people living in this world. If we are to grow, then we must face that which causes maturity and, knowing the outcome, we can experience a sense of security and purpose even as we pass through a challenging episode.

 

I’ll close by pointing out that James refers to “various trials,” by which he means whatever kind of trial we happen to face. They can be met with joy if we keep in mind what James has declared. And, to be clear, the “joy” spoken of in this passage is not a superficial happiness that we try to manufacture from our own resources, but is a holy contentment, a divine peace that accompanies us through the valley. And that joy is grounded in the gospel and God’s intention to shape you into the image of His dear Son, the one who gave himself for us on the cross. Trials, as explained by James, therefore, are natural components of the gospel experience.

 

END OF PART 1

Thoughts for All Saints

Commentary by Jim Bordwine, ThD

Volume 3 Number 3

February 26, 2014

The Tyranny of the Minority

 

 

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

(Isaiah 5:20)

Have you noticed how many aspects of our lives these days are governed by a minority opinion or a minority preference or a minority demand? I am not referring to race relationships; I’m referring to the upheaval that can be traced directly to the willingness of our culture to capitulate to highly vocal, consistently pushy, and well-financed groups that represent minority perspectives on issues that are, from a Biblical standpoint, definitely moral in nature.

Take the institution of marriage, for example. Some in the moral minority, in terms of the traditional ethical context that has been one of the distinguishing features of our history, have insisted, not only on recognition under the law, but also that the institution of marriage be re-constructed in order to accommodate their sexual proclivities. And a related area in which the tyranny of the minority is being frighteningly effective is in the matter of what is being called “gender identity.”

Recently, I read a news article that began with these words: “A California high school student who believes he is a girl trapped in a boy’s body just made the girls’ softball team.” A new state law, which went into effect last month, declares that “a pupil [must] be permitted to participate in sex-segregated school programs and activities, including athletic teams and competitions, and use facilities consistent with his or her gender identity, irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”

Consequently, a 17-year-old teenage boy, described as a “strapping senior,” is now a member of the girls’ softball team and is allowed to use bathrooms and locker rooms previously designated for females only. This is just one of many examples that could be cited. To put it bluntly, as a country, we are doomed if such forced acceptance of moral perversion continues unabated. And there really is no evidence to suggest that this movement can be stopped. Politicians, educators, and entertainers, generally speaking, fully support this transition and these kinds of laws are being considered and enacted around the country.

As the prophet Isaiah warned in the verse quoted above, there is no future for those who would disregard the definitions and boundaries established by our Creator. Ignoring His Word or pretending that His will is irrelevant guarantees only one thing and that is destruction, not freedom. This will not end well for any of us, believer or unbeliever.

Thoughts for All Saints

Commentary by Jim Bordwine, ThD

Volume 3 Number 2

February 14, 2014

In Praise of a Good Thing

He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.

(Proverbs 18:22)

Well over 30 years ago, I found a wife. Or, to be more precise, God brought a woman of extraordinary grace and beauty into my life and she has been a very good thing, to borrow Solomon’s wording. I cannot begin to describe adequately what this woman has been to me or how God has used her to enrich my life, further my sanctification, provide me with tender care during suffering, supply wisdom and correction when most needed, and display for me on a daily basis the character of Christ in her voice, her demeanor, her touch, her decisions, and her desires.

On this Valentine’s Day, therefore, I want to acknowledge in this public way the most wonderful gift I’ve ever received apart from God’s own Son and that is His daughter—prepared for me long before I knew Him. I was looking in the wrong place and with the wrong criteria in mind, but by His mercy I still found her. I was ignorant, arrogant, and rebellious, but by His mercy I still found her. I thought I knew it all when I really knew nothing, but by His mercy I still found Rebecca. Indeed, “he who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.”

I know I’m not the only one. Speak up, husbands. Honor your wives by giving thanks to God for His favor.

 

Thoughts for All Saints

Commentary by Jim Bordwine, ThD

Volume 3 Number 1

February 13, 2014

Conjunction Malfunction

 God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him;

male and female He created them.

(Genesis 1:27)

Is it possible that we have misinterpreted one of the most significant Biblical declarations concerning the nature of humanity? I’m referring to the verse quoted above, Genesis 1:27, in which we are told that God created human beings “male and female.” Traditionally, we have interpreted this short phrase in which the conjunction “and” connects the words “male” and “female” as teaching that God created two genders of human beings. Some human beings are male and other human beings are female. We have assumed that Moses meant that God created a male gender and a female gender, separate and distinct from one another.

This assumption, however, is certainly no longer the norm in our culture. A different idea has become prevalent, namely, that an individual human being may consider themselves male or female or some combination of both, if they choose. Therefore, what Moses was really saying is that God created human beings with no distinct male or female gender identity, but so designed human beings that we are capable of being either male or female, or a combination of both, depending on how we feel about ourselves.

This is absolute foolishness, of course, to anyone who believes the Scriptures. In fact, it should be a ridiculous notion to anyone, Bible believer or not, who takes seriously the history of our race. In our contemporary culture, however, those who see themselves as “progressive” and, therefore, unrestrained by traditional definitions and social morays, are celebrating the enlightenment that is finally becoming mainstream. This step forward in our collective self-awareness has now been acknowledged and incorporated into the operations of the world’s most popular social media platform known as Facebook.

Today Facebook announced “a custom gender option,” which will allow users to select the pronoun by which they would like to be referred to publicly. Those who wish to be identified as males may choose “he/his”; those who wish to be identified as females may choose “she/her”; and those who wish to maintain neutrality may choose “they/their.” Moreover, users may select from a number of options to identify their sexuality, including: “androgynous,” “transgender,” and “gender fluid.” Ironically, in what is supposed to be, I assume, a liberating opportunity for self-expression and an historic step forward for social consciousness, Facebook will also allow users to control who sees these custom gender specifications.

As one who believes the Bible is the very Word of God and is, therefore, always binding and relevant, regardless of the passage of time, I see these kinds of developments in our society as nothing less than brazen expressions of rebellion against God and His authority. We cannot expect to prosper or even remain stable as a nation as such trends toward autonomy continue.

Psalm 148

A Meditation for the Lord’s Day

In the Book of Psalms, there is a category of Psalms known as the “Hallelujah Psalms.” This term comes from the use of the Hebrew word halel in each of these . This word means “praise, glory, most, celebrate, and shine.” In its various grammatical constructions, this word is rendered “to be praised, to be made praiseworthy, to be commended.”

The most well-known of these Hallelujah Psalms is the collection that ends the book of Psalms, that is, 146 through 150. Each of these five Psalms begins and ends with “Praise the LORD.” Writers have referred to this collection of Psalms as the “Hallalujah Chorus” to this book of praises, that is, the whole book of Psalms.

Let’s consider Psa. 148:

1 Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; Praise Him in the heights! 2 Praise Him, all His angels; Praise Him, all His hosts! 3 Praise Him, sun and moon; Praise Him, all stars of light! 4 Praise Him, highest heavens, And the waters that are above the heavens! 5 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For He commanded and they were created. 6 He has also established them forever and ever; He has made a decree which will not pass away. 7 Praise the LORD from the earth, Sea monsters and all deeps; 8 Fire and hail, snow and clouds; Stormy wind, fulfilling His word; 9 Mountains and all hills; Fruit trees and all cedars; 10 Beasts and all cattle; Creeping things and winged fowl; 11 Kings of the earth and all peoples; Princes and all judges of the earth; 12 Both young men and virgins; Old men and children. 13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, For His name alone is exalted; His glory is above earth and heaven. 14 And He has lifted up a horn for His people, Praise for all His godly ones; Even for the sons of Israel, a people near to Him. Praise the LORD!

The writer calls for praise for the LORD from the heavens and the heights, from His angels, from the sun and moon, and all stars of light. He commanded, and they were created. Further, God has established them forever by a decree that will not pass away. God’s making and sustaining of creation are to be the basis of praise from the very things made and sustained.

In verses 7-10, the writer provides another list of sources from which God should be praised. Praise should come from the earth, sea monsters, from fire and hail, snow and clouds, wind, mountains and hills, fruit trees and all cedars, from all beasts, creeping things and winged foul. Once again, all of creation is exhorted to praise its Creator in light of His power to make them and maintain them.

The writer concludes this Psalm of praise with reference to man. In verse 11, he calls upon the kings of the earth and all people to praise the LORD. Princes and all judges are included. With these references, the writer indicates that even those with great authority among men are obligated to recognize a greater authority, which is the LORD.

Mentioned next are young men and virgins, old men and children. At no stage of life, does the obligation to praise God cease. From the beginning of life to its end, we are to praise the LORD for His greatness. Children are to be instructed in the praise of God, both by word and deed. They learn about this universal beauty through the teaching and example of adults.

Young man and virgins, who have entered the most active part of life where the tendency is to think primarily of self and plans for the future, are reminded that before all else they have a responsibility to praise the LORD. All listed are exhorted to praise the name of the LORD because His name alone is exalted and, as has been stated previously, His glory is above earth and heaven. And He is to be praised, as well, for His rescue of His people.

As noted, this Psalm ends with that wonderful declaration “Praise the LORD.” Let us, therefore, enter His presence with gladness and humble thanksgiving so that we might join the ranks of those who have gathered to Praise the LORD.

 

The Gospel

2014

 

Introduction

Several years ago, on the first Sunday of the new year, I began a tradition, which I have repeated each year since. I spoke on one particular doctrinal issue in order to set the course for the coming year and remind us all of what really is the most important matter we handle as a congregation (All Saints Parish Church in Vancouver, WA). All that we believe, practice, and hope to become is grounded in one issue. It is essential, obviously, and due to the essential nature of this subject, I want to revisit it this afternoon as we begin a new year. I’m referring, of course, to the gospel.

The beginning of a new year is a time for reflection. People think about the state of their lives, what they wished they had accomplished, what they hope to accomplish, and so forth. The gospel is the heart of the Church’s life and, therefore, serious reflection on the gospel and the state of our ministry is both edifying and advisable.

I want to explain what I mean by the term “gospel.” When I use this term, I have in mind what God has revealed to us about our redemption. Therefore, I’m using the word “gospel” in a broad sense to include all that the Bible has to say about our restoration as a fallen race. The manner in which the gospel is understood and taught is the life-blood of any congregation, as I’ve already stressed. What is believed about this subject determines the spiritual character of a church; in fact, it determines whether we really are a church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

If a church believes and teaches what the Bible proclaims on this issue, then that church is bound to have a good apprehension of everything found in God’s word. On the other hand, if a church does not understand, believe and teach what the Bible says about man’s salvation, that congregation is bound to have defective doctrine across the board. Command is illegal

First, we will consider the necessity of the gospel. If the gospel, broadly defined, has to do with the restoration of man, we must know what it is about man that requires a restoration. Second, we will look at the provision of the gospel. Under this point, we will see what God has done in response to man’s need. The third point will be the exclusivity of the gospel. Here, I will concentrate on the unique nature of God’s provision for our need.

01. The Necessity of the Gospel

We are all aware of the event that occurred early in the history of our race which unalterably established our need of redemption. I’m referring, of course, to the fall of Adam and Eve. This is such a familiar portion of Scripture that I’m sure I could just mention it and proceed without much elaboration. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, I will review this story briefly.

As we know, the Biblical description of man’s origin is composed of two primary elements, his creation and his disobedience. The Scripture tells us that God created the first man and he was perfect. In addition, because this creature was made in the image of the Creator, he was morally upright. In the beginning, therefore, Adam, the first man and father of our race, existed in a state of innocence.

All was harmonious in this setting. God was recognized and served as the almighty Creator; man recognized himself as one that came from the hand of this almighty Creator and was, therefore, bound to relate to God as the thing made should relate to the sovereign Maker. In this state, Adam enjoyed communion with God and was at peace and able to pursue his calling.

In this original environment, God designed a circumstance in which Adam would be tested regarding his willingness to abide by the implications of the Creator-creature relationship. God granted Adam access to all that the Garden of Eden had to offer with one exception. Adam was forbidden to eat the fruit that was found on one particular tree.

This was a simple arrangement, yet one with profound implications. This circumstance declared that this was God’s world and, therefore, His will was supreme. It taught Adam that he had to submit to the Creator in all things. The point of this test was not the fruit of that particular tree, but Adam’s willingness to abide by the command of the Creator.

After receiving instructions, Adam also received Eve, a creature like him. Together, Adam and Eve were commissioned to multiply, subdue the earth and rule it under God. Together, as man and wife, our first parents were to serve the Creator and thus enjoy His blessings.

As we know, however, things changed drastically:

Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’” 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! 5 For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

These few verses record the most tragic event that could be imagined. Here is the ruination of our race! That which was perfect is perfect no longer. The relationship between the Creator and the creature is horribly disrupted and the narrative hardly reveals the devastation which resulted from this episode. It is this one incident which determines the nature of our existence from that point forward. This act forever changed all of creation.

Consider the manner in which this story is given to us. The writer records the facts in a simple, straight-forward manner. I have already rehearsed the background for this story. We know that this was a perfect environment; we know that God and man existed in harmony; we know that all of God’s creation was what He intended it to be; and we know that Adam had been given a command that epitomized his relation to God. But into this picture came the deceiver, the enemy of righteousness.

The woman was questioned by the serpent: “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” (v. 1) And the woman captured the essence of the command when she repeated God’s prohibition (v. 2) Clearly she knew that the Creator had forbidden her to eat from that particular tree; she was not ignorant of the law that governed her relationship with God. Nevertheless, instead of ceasing contact with the serpent immediately, she continued and heard these words: “You surely shall not die!” (v. 4)

And, as we know, Eve considered the words of the deceiver and “when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” (v. 6)

If we ask, “What happened in the Garden of Eden?”, the uncomplicated answer is that the command of God was broken—and this is the fundamental definition of all sin. Perhaps this is why this important event is recorded in such a simple fashion. Perhaps it is so that any child can read this account and understand what happened. God gave a command and it was not obeyed. Anyone can listen to these words and know that Eve and then Adam disobeyed the Creator.

This brings me to a second question: What is the meaning of this event? We get a symbolic answer to this second question in our passage: “7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. 8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.”

Consider how awful it was for the creatures made in God’s image to sense the need to hide themselves from Him! Clearly, something horrible occurred. When they broke God’s commandment, they immediately sensed that what they had done was unnatural; they immediately realized that the peace of the Garden had been disturbed.

For Adam and Eve, the repercussions began with their instant realization that they were transgressors and could no longer appear in God’s presence without shame and guilt. Adam and Eve attempted to avoid confrontation with God because confrontation with God would require them to own up to their disobedience. They did what they could in those circumstances to evade the Lawgiver.

Adam and Eve did what they were forbidden to do and, as a result, their relationship with God was ruined. This is the story of the beginning of our race. From this time forward, Scripture teaches, every descendant of Adam and Eve is conceived in the state of alienation; every descendant is born in that state of estrangement from God. At its core, the action of Adam and Eve was rebellion. They both substituted their will for God’s will; they both ranked their wisdom above the wisdom of God.

We know from later revelation that the transgression of Adam and Eve had a most extreme impact upon their natures. Soon, we are told about the banishment of our first parents from this place of fellowship with God. Life in the Garden meant fellowship with God; it meant that all was right and that all relationships were what they should be. Banishment from the Garden meant just the opposite; it meant that fellowship with God had been broken and that things were not right and all relationships had been adversely affected.

From a blessed existence to a cursed existence; from peace to disorder; from fellowship to antagonism. Now man is at odds with God, now he is God’s enemy, now he struggles under the weight of guilt for having disobeyed. Man comes into existence now with a rebellious heart and throughout his miserable life, he gives continual expression to the corruption of his soul.

This is the doctrine of man’s total depravity. Every facet of his existence, every faculty of his soul, is marred by sin. Depraved man will not and cannot restore what has been lost; he knows only the way of defiance because his soul carries in it the seed of corruption. This is fallen man; this is man before the gospel.

Returning to the Genesis record, we know that something else was said between God’s cursing of the parties involved and the banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden. When God came to Adam, Eve and the serpent, each party was cursed and bound to live with certain temporal consequences of this incident. And the consequences went well beyond temporal considerations; the very nature of man was affected.

However, following His denunciation of the serpent, the woman and the man, God gave that wonderful promise of a coming restoration: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” (v. 15) Here is the first indication that God, the One offended, would undertake the rescue of His special creatures.

This is the promise that unfolds throughout the rest of the Bible and throughout the rest of history. This is the first announcement of the gospel and it comes here in Genesis, in the midst of man’s ruin. The gospel that we love and cherish cannot be rightly understood, believed or taught apart from an understanding of its origin. A plan of restoration was necessitated by the events that transpired in the Garden of Eden.

02. The Provision of the Gospel

We have seen what necessitated a plan of redemption; now we can see what God meant by His promise to send a Deliverer. What must be kept in mind is fallen man’s need. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, that spot which symbolized fellowship with God and harmony in relationships. After disobeying God, they lacked the quality of moral uprightness, which is defined by God’s character alone.

Man’s need, then, is great; it is almost beyond comprehension. However, God’s provision is also great. The provision of God in the gospel centers upon one concept: substitution. For fallen man to be reconciled to God, two things had to happen: one, fallen man had to render unto God a perfect life and thus do what Adam failed to do; two, fallen man had to provide a payment for his sins. The problem, of course, is that fallen man is incapable of providing what is absolutely necessary for his redemption.

Without going into great detail, let me state that one aspect of man’s total depravity is his inability to do anything about his condition. Man was not just wounded, spiritually speaking, he was killed. A sinner is a walking dead man when it comes to spiritual matters. He can do nothing about his circumstance and does not care to do anything about his circumstance. What, then, is the solution? It is what I mentioned earlier. The solution, the only solution, is substitution.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul writes: “2:13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Here is the substitutionary payment for our sins; here is the satisfaction of our debt before God. Notice that Paul reminds us that we were “dead” in our fallen state; however, God made us alive in and with Christ.

Jesus Christ is the provision for our salvation. He is what God had in mind when that glorious promise was made in the midst of the ruin of the Garden of Eden. According to these verses, God was willing to let Jesus Christ take our sin-debt to Himself and bearing it, be nailed to a cross where He gave His blessed life in our place. So great was the quality of that life, Paul teaches, that the debt we owed to God is “taken out of the way.” It is not forgotten nor is it ignored for a time—our sin is paid for by Christ’s sacrifice of Himself in our place.

When Christ paid for our sins, that was one component in our restoration. The second component is something I mentioned already, namely, a righteousness of our own. Having our sins paid for does not, at the same time, make us righteous in the eyes of God. Therefore, a second component in man’s restoration—or the sinner’s justification—is the provision of a righteousness. Once again, let us hear from Paul:

Phil. 3:8… I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith…

After his conversion, Paul understood that the needed righteousness cannot be earned, but must be imputed. The sinner’s hope is not only that Christ will pay his sin-debt, but also that Christ will credit to the sinner the perfect life He lived while on this earth. Therefore, Paul rejects the notion of self-justification or any idea that the sinner can restore himself. Instead, Paul embraces and teaches the idea that the righteousness that the sinner must have is not his own and cannot come from himself.

The needed righteousness must come from One able to provide it and that One is Jesus Christ. Not only does Christ become our Substitute in His death, He also becomes our Substitute in His life. All that is required of the sinner is supplied by the sinner’s Substitute. Payment for sin is made and righteousness is given and both things are grounded in the Savior.

This brings me to the third point of this sermon, which has to do with an aspect of the gospel that needs to be stressed frequently. Man’s need necessitated a particular provision, which God supplied in Christ. This means that the manner in which fallen man is restored to God’s favor is singular, narrow and restricted.

03. The Exclusivity of the Gospel

By this heading, I mean that there are not many avenues to restoration; there is only one and that is the one designated by the offended Party, namely, the God of this creation. The fact that the way of reconciliation for sinful man might be singular should come as no surprise. Therefore, I will not spend a great deal of time on this third point. Let me refer to a definitive statement made by Paul in 1 Tim. 2: “5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time.”

In the context of these verses, the apostle is urging believers to pray for all who are in authority, regardless of rank. His reasoning is that God would have all classes of men, the rulers and well as the ones ruled, to come to the knowledge of salvation (cf. v. 4). Then Paul makes a restrictive, intolerant declaration: “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

Two parties are envisioned here, God and fallen man. Standing between the two, as it were, is a Mediator, One who is able to bring the two together. To be more precise given all the Biblical data, this Mediator is bringing the one party, man, to the other, God. It is man who needs reconciliation and this reconciliation is achieved by One and only One Mediator, Jesus Christ. He is the One, Paul notes, “who gave Himself as a ransom” for all men.

The need of men, all men, was determined in the Garden. The singular provision of a Substitute for those in need was determined by God. That provision was His Son and that provision is exclusive in the sense that it is the only provision given and accepted by God. As Paul implies here, if a man is to have fellowship with God, it must be by way of the Mediator, Jesus Christ. The sinner cannot go to God on his own, nor can he devise some way that might gain him access to God’s blessed presence.

What Paul teaches here is repeated throughout Scripture. God promised a Deliverer at the time of Adam’s fall. That promised Deliverer was the focus of all prophecy and expectation. No other means of restoration for fallen man is ever mentioned in God’s word because no other means of restoration exists. God accepts sinners in His Son and only in His Son. Since all men are in a state of condemnation, this means that all men either have Christ as their Mediator, and therefore enjoy God’s saving favor, or they remain in their fallen condition and await the day of God’s wrath.

To all sinners, Christ declares: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6) This is not a debatable issue! There are sinners and there are saved sinners in this world and the only thing that separates one category from the other is the Substitutionary mediation of Jesus Christ. There are not many gospels, there is only one gospel and this one gospel is from God and makes known to us our need, God’s provision and the exclusive nature of that provision.

Application

One purpose I had in mind in preparing this sermon was to declare the essentials of the Biblical gospel. While much more could have been said about the gospel, I do believe that an outline of the gospel has been presented and in this outline, I have touched upon the primary elements. Explaining the gospel consists of two chief facts: man’s need and God’s provision.

The gospel is a simple message; it is one easily understood by all who hear it. We were in need and God provided what we needed. In a day when the churches of Christ are dabbling in so many things unrelated to the true ministry of the gospel, we would do well to meditate upon the gospel as it is found in the Bible.

Another purpose for this sermon was my desire to “go on record” regarding my own beliefs and the beliefs of this church where the issue of salvation is concerned. What I have related to you is what I believe Scripture teaches. I believe that man is conceived in a state of alienation from God and that his only hope is the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ.

Further, I believe that fallen man is incapable of doing or desiring any good whatsoever as far as his restoration is concerned. He is a creature absolutely dependent upon the grace of God. This is what I believe and this is what this church believes, by which I mean that this is the doctrine that we hold and teach.

As I noted, these convictions about the nature of man and the nature of salvation will influence everything you will hear taught from this pulpit in the coming year. You will hear statements indicating our utter dependence upon God in all things; you will hear statements ascribing all glory to God and statements urging complete devotion to God and His holy will.

All these things and more are grounded in what the Bible teaches about our need as fallen creatures and God’s response to our need in Christ. Whether we are talking about salvation or our ethical obligations or our vocations, all that we are to know and do is traced back to man’s fall in the Garden and God’s merciful restoration of man in Christ.

And a final purpose for this sermon was my desire to encourage you to consider anew the glorious work that God has done for us. Let us begin the new year with a fresh perspective on what God has accomplished for us. In connection with this purpose, I want to emphasize to our young people their responsibility to consider the gospel of our salvation. You are privileged to be growing up in an environment in which we all are attempting to serve God and communicate to you the knowledge of the Bible. Understand, however, that the gospel that I have described is just as relevant for you as it is for anyone else.

When the Bible describes the miserable state of fallen man, it is describing your state apart from Christ. When it speaks of the condemnation of all who are descendants of Adam, it is speaking of you. Give thanks to God that He has placed you in the community of believers—this is no small privilege—but also know that you are a sinner and you must own Christ as your Substitute if you are to escape the inevitable end of God’s enemies.

Introduction

We’re all familiar with the concept of making New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they’re taken seriously, but most people view resolutions as well-intentioned desires that will probably never be fulfilled for any significant amount of time. Even those who do take their resolutions seriously often become much less serious about this activity after they fail numerous times to achieve their goal.

I do think there is a theological reason behind this desire we have to start fresh. As the Scriptures teach, God’s fingerprint, as it were, is on all His creatures. That influence includes a conscience and an innate desire to “do better,” we might say. Because of sin, this God-given tendency to make improvement has been corrupted and it usually manifests itself in some misguided attempt.

Common resolutions seem to fall into one of two categories. The first category is that which relates to us on a personal level and the second is that which relates to us in terms of our relationships with others. Therefore, people will make a resolution as the New Year begins to take better care of themselves or break some detrimental habit. In the second instance, people will vow to give more attention to their essential responsibilities or to aspects of their lives that are creating problems for someone else.

Whatever the resolution might be, they all have one fatal flaw, and that fatal flaw is the fact that such resolutions originate in and depend upon human effort. If what we have determined to do will require real determination or a significant change of lifestyle, then we will quickly discover how difficult it will be to keep a resolution. Our fallen natures vigorously oppose any attempt to achieve true good.

My aim is to provide some Biblical guidance for the coming new year. As I do, I want to say that there is a Christian version of a resolution that, when enacted correctly, can be of great benefit to us. In Scripture, the most successful plans for the future—whether we are speaking of that individual, family, or even an entire nation—begin with the careful consideration of the past. It may be a previous experience or, in some cases, a command given by the Lord at some point in the past. The Word teaches us that part of the process of maturity for a Christian involves a measured concentration on things that have already been said or have already occurred.

As I read and thought about some of the stories in the Old Testament, I concluded that there are three primary categories in which this pattern of future planning based on the past may be observed. The first category that I would like to identify is what I will call monumental events. The Bible puts a lot of emphasis on those epic incidents in the history of God’s people. The emphasis is for the purpose of instruction long after the event itself has occurred.

Monumental Events

Without question, the most significant event in the history of the people of Israel was the Exodus from captivity in Egypt. After approximately 400 years, God spoke to Moses and informed him that He was about to deliver the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This would be in fulfillment of promises made to those patriarchs.

This led to the unprecedented display of the power of God as He tormented the Egyptians with one plague after another until they finally agreed to let the people go. The devastation and death in the land of Egypt was massive; and when Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites, God once again intervened and they all perished in a remarkable manner.

Once they were beyond the reach of Egyptians, the people were given direction toward a particular land where God would settle them. We know the story, of course, and the sinful response of the people resulted in a 40 year long wandering in the desert until the generation that came out of Egypt was dead.

On a number of occasions during that lengthy period, the people were encouraged to obey by remembering their deliverance from captivity. Because the rescue from Egypt gave undeniable evidence of God’s regard for this people and how He was able and willing to use His power as He pleased, that event became a touchstone for every generation that lived thereafter. From the mouth of Moses and the prophets, the Israelites were constantly reminded of what God did in Egypt and the purpose of such frequent reminders was to instill courage and trust in the hearts of the people, especially when they were facing some new challenge or a superior foe.

Just after the Exodus, Moses made this declaration to the people: “Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the LORD brought you out from this place.” (Ex. 13:3) When these people faced difficult circumstances in the future, when it seemed that they were going to perish, or when they were commanded to do something that they did not believe they could accomplish, they were to think back to this day on which the power of God was unleashed so that they, His chosen people, might go free. And by remembering this unique display, they would be encouraged and their faith in God would be strengthened.

Beginning in the book of Exodus and concluding in the book of Haggai, there are several dozen references to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt. For example, in Amos 4 we read:

9 “I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and the caterpillar was devouring Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. 10 “I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses, And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils; Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

When the people heard of Egypt, they were to recall the awesome power demonstrated by God for their benefit. In this passage, He reminds them that in their recent history they had been subjected to various means of chastisement similar to what they know happened long ago. Ideally, the people would hear this reference and repent and realize that the power of God had been used for their deliverance and protection, and it could just as easily be used for their destruction if they continued in sin.

I’ve mentioned before that I was converted in October of 1975. Without going into all the details, let me say that I knew instantly that I had been born-again and nothing would ever be the same. That episode is my deliverance from Egypt. On countless occasions over years, I have recalled that experience in order to reorient my understanding of who I was and what God wanted from me. Many things have happened to me since that day, but nothing has approached the magnitude of that occurrence.

Not everyone, of course, has the kind of conversion experience I just described because they grow up in a Christian household and are taught to trust the Lord from the very beginning days of their lives. But I believe that as we walk with God during our lifetimes, we will have defining moments during which God tenderly instructs us, patiently comforts us, or mercifully delivers us in some manner.

You might remember a time of intense prayer that was unlike any other time in your life. You might remember a day when you sensed the loving ministry of the Holy Spirit while you were passing through some painful trial. And you have not forgotten that episode, whatever it was. Those experiences define us as believers and bring clarity to our perspective on how we should be living.

If you have had an experience like this or something similar, then I want to ask you how it has affected you since then. Again, it need not be something dramatic or life-altering. It may be that you observed some evidence of God’s activity in the life of a loved one or friend and it was profound enough that the memory remains with you. If there have been those times, have you allowed that defining moment, whatever it was, to remind you of the responsibility to live rightly before the Lord?

And today, as we are about to enter a new year, does that event (or perhaps several events that come to mind) have any bearing on what you hope to accomplish or on how you plan to conduct yourself in the next 12 months? By reflecting on these kinds of occurrences in our lives, we are made wiser—wiser about sin and about the deceitfulness of the flesh and about our own pride and certainly about how we are to use the time God has appointed for us.

If you make a New Year’s resolution this coming week, let it be grounded in those monumental events in your past. And, by the way, the events from which you should draw guidance may include destructive mistakes on your part or times when you fell into sin. Having been forgiven by God for some transgression and having been restored by His mercy; qualify as those monumental events that should forever affect the way you live on this earth.

Admirable Examples

The Bible is full of all kinds of examples, both good and bad. These examples make up the second category that I want to talk about. In this case, the example set by a single character, which brought God’s blessing on the nation, was ignored by those who came after him. I am referring to Gideon.

As much as any other man mentioned in Scripture, Gideon is an example of an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances according to what God determined should occur. Gideon demonstrated doubt, poor judgment, and fear at times, but an uncommon bravery and solid trust at others. We can learn from Gideon’s failures and his accomplishments. All in all, under Gideon’s leadership, the nation of Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace.

As Gideon’s life came to a close, we read this report:

Judges 8:33 Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god. 34 Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; 35 nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel.

Obviously Gideon led the nation in such a way that there was general faithfulness before the Lord. But as this text says, once the restraint against disobedience was removed, which existed in the person of Gideon, the people quickly returned to idolatry and promptly forgot all the lessons that had been learned, or could have been learned, from the life of Gideon.

Gideon’s experience was not too complicated to understand. It was a matter of seeing God’s blessing upon that man when he was faithful and God’s hand of chastisement upon him when he was not. It was the simplest truth displayed throughout those 40 years and no one who seriously desired to walk rightly before God would have had any trouble learning valuable lessons from the life of Gideon.

But note the text once again: As soon as Gideon was dead, the people returned to idolatry, and “the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side.” The word translated “remember” is the Hebrew term “zakar,” which means “to remember, to call to mind, to record.” When you examine the multitude of occurrences of this word in the Old Testament, it becomes apparent that in the Hebrew mind, “to remember” was an activity that involved more than simply producing a brief recollection of some event. To remember meant to recall something to mind, yes, but that recollection was for the purpose of instruction. Therefore, when the Jews were told to remember something, the meaning was that they were to take instruction in the present based upon a past experience.

Our text says that those living after the death of Gideon “did not remember the LORD their God.” This doesn’t mean that the people forgot there was a God. The writer means that the people ignored all that God had demonstrated toward them and for them in the past. He states that God had delivered the people from all their enemies repeatedly. That happened under the leadership of Gideon and should have been a powerful influence for good in the lives of Israelites even after Gideon was no longer on the scene.

After Gideon’s departure, men competed for the leadership of the nation. In one case, 70 men from the same family were murdered on the same day to provide for the advancement of one man to the throne. The peace of the past 40 years was replaced with political and moral chaos; murder, deceit, and disorder became the norm. All of this could have been prevented if the men of Israel had determined to follow the example of Gideon.

Becoming acquainted with genuinely godly people, that is, those whose lives are examples of faithfulness to God in every area, is not a common occurrence. Personally, I have met plenty of Christians worthy of respect, but few who could serve as a model for my entire life. Nevertheless, the lessons to be taken from those few examples are quite numerous and have served as guidelines, goals, and corrections throughout my life.

Unlike Israel, we do not want to miss such a valuable resource that God has placed in our lives. Therefore, I will ask: Have you been blessed to encounter someone whose example is worthy of imitation? Is there anyone in your life, past or present, whose walk with the Lord exemplifies what you desire for yourself? One characteristic that most of our examples will have in common will be the manner in which they react to difficult circumstances. It is during such times, that the example of others can provide us with the motivation and guidance that we need.

Think of the person or persons in your experience who fit this model and then ask yourself these questions: Am I sincerely striving to imitate that godly person? Am I able and willing to let those examples change my thinking and action? Does a life that is pleasing to God truly matter more to me then opportunities to express myself and go my own way? How do you plan to implement examples of godliness in your life the next 12 months? Where does your life need correction, the correction of a consistent and mature standard seen in the lives of those you admire most? Do you want to improve the manner in which you respond to a trial? What about love for the brethren in this congregation? Is that an area in need of reformation and, if so, has God put anyone in your life whose pattern may help you?

Let me emphasize that the most critical aspect of what I’m describing is not finding a godly person to imitate; the most critical aspect comes after identifying such a person. That is when you must determine whether you are willing to copy that person’s standard. Depending on the adjustment that needs to be made, you may have a significant struggle against your flesh. But if that change is necessary and if that change is what God commands and if that change is for your good and the good of others, then you simply must dedicate yourself to achieving that goal. And as we begin a new year, you have the perfect time to make this decision and formulate a plan by which it will be implemented.

Divine Character

We come now to the third and final resource upon which the people of God have depended when preparing for the future. This is the resource of God’s character. Since God’s character does not change, which means He is consistent in what He requires and how He responds to us, the better we know that character the better prepared we will be to analyze those areas in need of attention in our lives during this coming new year.

There are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God’s character is recalled and applied in a troubling situation. David does this frequently. In the Psalms, he often describes the threat of some enemy or some circumstance, but then reveals how he was delivered from fear and made bold when he meditated on some aspect of God’s character—it may have been God’s strength or God’s faithfulness or God’s mercy, but God’s character is that resource that completely changes David’s perspective and expectations.

It is not just in the Psalms, however, that we find such passages. Consider this statement found in Nehemiah 4:

“Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” (v. 14)

The context of this exhortation is an alliance of Israel’s enemies who have conspired together to fight against Jerusalem and interrupt the process of rebuilding, which is under the authority of Nehemiah. It was imperative that the work of rebuilding continue, so Nehemiah was not willing to stop in order to deal with this threat exclusively. Instead, he took steps to guard against the coming assault while, at the same time, continuing the work of reconstructing the city wall. Many of the people, however, became fearful because of the size of the army poised to enter the city. Nehemiah realized that he had to do something to stabilize his people so that they would not abandon their work.

Consider what Nehemiah had to offer. He could not assure the people that he had a well-trained army himself ready to defend the city. He could not refer to negotiations that he believed would preserve peace. Nehemiah could not attempt to convince the people that this coming enemy would be merciful. What, therefore, did Nehemiah have at his disposal that would eliminate fear, encourage bravery, and motivate a relatively small number of men to continue the very work their enemy insisted they stop? He needed something that was absolutely trustworthy, something that had been seen in the past, and something he knew would be just as dependable now. The only thing that meets those criteria is the character of God.

Therefore, Nehemiah exhorts the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who was great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Remember the Lord! That is Nehemiah’s solution to the threat posed by the alliance of his enemies. We have no chance on our own. We cannot make a successful stand. On our own, the city will be taken in the work of rebuilding will cease and we will surely die.

Israel did not have to give up or stop building. What the men did have to do, however, was exercise faith. They had to trust God. They had to look back at previous examples where God came to the aid of His people, even in the most dreadful circumstances, and delivered them. Then they had to realize that God’s character does not change and they are still His people and He will, therefore, fight for them now.

Notice what was at stake: family and houses, which are among the most precious items in life. The coming fight would be for their existence. And, as already stated, what is needed in such a circumstance is that which cannot fail and that which does not depend upon human ability or effort. The Divine character meets these qualifications. The people could be fearless because the Lord is “great and awesome.” He had demonstrated these aspects of His nature countless times in the history of this nation. This wasn’t the first time God’s people were outnumbered. This wasn’t the first time God’s people appeared to have no chance of survival.

There are many more passages like this one in which the character of God becomes the foundation on which His people rest in dangerous surroundings. This single text, however, sufficiently illustrates this third category related to making plans for the future. Just after making the statement in verse 14, Nehemiah reveals that the enemy became aware that God had frustrated their plans. Therefore, “all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work.”

The unchanging character God is, of course, the most reliable basis for our plans for the coming year. Other things, which may have been reliable in the past, may still fail, but God’s nature cannot fail and the love He has shown to you in the past when He delivered you from harsh circumstances or when He removed a burden causing much anguish in your life, is the same today as it has always been. Therefore, any plans you make for this coming year, any resolutions you adopt, any changes you desire to see in yourself, any defeat of sinful tendencies and establishment of righteous practices must, first and foremost, be grounded in the unchanging character of God.

No one here can say that they have no need of correction in any area of their lives. God has provided this opportunity for you to examine yourself and follow the instruction He has given. Decide what aspect of your life needs reformation and then draw strength from one of those important events from your past and focus upon the admirable example of someone you’ve known and, above all, ground your effort in the holy and unchanging character of God. This is how Christians prepare for the future.