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The Means of Grace – The Outward and Ordinary Means

The Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms help explain more about the function and purpose of the outward and ordinary means of grace. The benefits of the redemption we have in Christ are possessed by us through faith. Faith is the instrument of our salvation. As the Holy Spirit, by God’s grace, works faith in us, we are led to repent of our sins. The odiousness and heinousness of our sins becomes unbearable but the beauty of and grandeur of Christ’s sacrifice for us becomes resplendent. By repentance and faith, we escape the wrath and curse due to us by reason of the transgression of the law (WLC 153). Repentance and faith are the inward graces of the Gospel. All who are saved by the Lord Jesus Christ repent and believe by faith.[1]

But how is this good news outwardly communicated to us? God has ordained that we will come to a knowledge and understanding of this redemption through his outward and ordinary means. These outward and ordinary means are the word, sacraments, and prayer. These means are God’s method of revealing Christ to the elect. When the outward means of grace meet with the inward graces of repentance and faith, there is redemption with all the benefits of justification, adoption, and sanctification, along with assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Spirit, increase of grace, and perseverance to the end (WSC 33-37).

It is important here to clearly distinguish between God and the instruments used by God. In the Roman Catholic church and any other denomination that teaches baptismal regeneration (a belief that the sacrament of baptism, in and of itself, actually confers salvation to the recipient by virtue of the authority of the church as a storehouse of God’s grace) it is held that all who are baptized are ipso facto saved. In this scenario the instrument of God is confused and conflated with God. Paul argued against this view, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:28, 29). The sign of circumcision or baptism does not confer the grace of God ex opere operato, that is “from the work worked” meaning that executing of the sacrament grants the grace of God. The inward and outward grace of God work together but must remain distinct.

The opposite error must also be avoided. The inward and outward graces must remain distinct, but they cannot be separated. Those denominations that would ignore or diminish the sacraments, prayer, or the Word deny the outward means of grace in favor of some mystical or spiritualized form of religion. Modern American spirituality where the person is “spiritual but not religious” would be an example. They have eschewed any outward means of God’s grace and assume that they can still receive God’s inward grace.

There is an inseparable connection between the outward and inward. OPC pastor GI Williamson warns, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”[2] This union between inward and outward, while they remain distinct, explains why those who regularly hear the Word preached are usually those who truly believe. It also explains why some hear and do not believe (e.g. Simon Magus, Acts 8).

We cannot, therefore, underestimate the importance of the outward means of grace. If the Church fails to preach the Word, administer the sacraments, or pray, then the people of God will be harmed. Since these means are given to us through the Church, this highlights the incredible importance of the local church in the life of the believer.

We should also note that these are described in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as “ordinary.” We live in a celebrity culture where we tend to believe that some people are able to tap into more of the power of God than the regular and ordinary pastor of God’s people. Yes, some men are gifted communicators and are able to express truth in a clear and helpful way. But they possess no more power from God than the regular minister. In fact, the diligent and regular preaching of God’s Word by ordinary and faithful pastors has an incalculably greater effect than any celebrity speaker. Believing that some special speaker will bless us more than the regular and ordinary preached word is to conflate and confuse the instrument of God’s grace with God himself. God’s grace is found in the ordinary means of grace. We are called to seek the inward grace of repentance and faith by the diligent use of the outward means of grace.

 

[1] Elect infants who die in infancy and the elect with mental disabilities which would preclude them from repentance and believing would be a small exception to this.

[2] G. I. Williamson, The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes, 2 edition (Phillipsburg, N.J: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub Co, 2003), 284.

The Means of Grace

God created all things out of nothing. He was dependent upon no one and no thing when he created. God had no need to create. He was not compelled, coerced, or forced to create. It was all from freedom. All that God created came as an outflow of the all-satisfying and sufficient love among the persons of the Godhead. Everything that was created was simply for the celebration and glory of God. It is for these reasons, among others, that we can look at all of creation and say it was by grace. Creation was not merited or deserved, but it was simply because God in his gracious nature desired to create. All good things come to man on account of God’s gracious character.

The graciousness of God is also seen in God’s dealing with Adam in the aftermath of his sin. The punishment that Adam had merited for all mankind in the Garden was not fully and immediately meted out. If it had been, then mankind would have been immediately and completely eradicated. Instead, the graciousness of God was demonstrated in that God shows both his wrath at sin and all that opposes his righteous rule while also revealing his patience and sovereign plan of redemption for mankind. Though they deserve death, God’s blessing makes the woman fruitful and causes her to eventually give birth to the one who would crush the head of the enemy and conquer the power of sin. The promise of redemption and salvation flows from the graciousness of God. God’s relationship with man has always been marked by grace.

The question that has arisen throughout the history of the church has been whether or not, in the communication of this grace, God uses means. That is, are there things that God uses to communicate his grace to us? When we talk about the “Means of Grace,” we are talking about the instruments by which God communicates his grace to us. There have been a variety of answers to this question. Mysticism has held that the grace of God, even salvation, is simply Christ in us, an inner guiding light, or some spark of the Divine that makes grace available to man. There are no means, God’s grace and blessedness is just in us and the task of the believer is simply to recognize, realize, or actualize that grace. The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, sees God’s grace as bound to means. The visible Church as sustained by the invisible Spirit, is the actual means of grace. In their view, the Church is Christ on earth, and the grace Christ merited is administered through the sacrament by the priest. This means, as the Council of Trent articulates, that the grace of justification can only be obtained through the priestly administration of the sacraments, or at least a faithful desire for them.

The Reformation held a position in between these two poles. There are means but these means are not identical with the visible church. There is no Mediator between God and man. The church is the communion of the saints, but she does not mediate salvation. Instead, the Word and the sacraments alone can be viewed as means of grace. These means are external, humanly perceptible actions, and signs that Christ has given his church and with which he has linked the communication of his grace. Westminster agrees with this when it asks:

What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemptions?

The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation (WSC #88).

The Word is primary as a means of grace because it is the clearest revelation of Jesus Christ. It is also through the Word that we are instructed in the nature and practice of the sacraments. The Word is primary, but the sacraments are a means whereby Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit is communicated to the elect by faith. Geerhardus Vos comments, “Accompanying the spoken word, the sacrament is a word contained in an image and intended for the eye” (Vos, Reformed Dogmatics). Calvin adds, “Therefore, let it be regarded as a settled principle that the sacraments have the same office as the Word of God: to offer and set forth Christ to us, and in him the treasures of heavenly grace. But they avail and profit nothing unless received in faith” (Calvin, Institutes).

The Word and sacraments are instruments or means of grace whereby the Holy Spirit presents Christ to his elect. They are inseparably attached to one another. The Word of God giving shape and direction to the sacrament. The sacraments are, therefore, impotent without the Word. And both would be fruitless without faith. But as an instrument of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is by faith revealed and set before the believer.

 

 

The Reformation Wrap-up

Martin Luther was a man prone to sharp bursts of emotion. On particular occasion Luther was feeling overwhelmed by the temptation of the devil. To reject the temptation, he yelled out at the devil and hurled his inkwell at the wall. His students would later look at the ink spot on the wall of Luther’s study and retell the story of Luther’s outburst. It became something of a legend. Over the years as the ink spot began to fade, his students would retouch the spot, perhaps even embellishing it. It is so easy for the temptation of relics to re-emerge.

The worst way possible to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation would be to celebrate the men and women who brought about the Reformation apart from the work of God in and through these people. Luther, Calvin, and others would be aghast at the notion that much would be made of them and not of their God. The goal of Reformation is the glory of God. This is man’s chief end (WSC #1). And yet, when we make the celebration, study, or remembrance of the Reformation an antiquarian practice, we end up elevating men and their efforts and not the glory of God. We are guilty, in a very real sense, of promoting the use of religious relics for our sanctification. Luther might hurl his inkwell at us!

It was likely in response to the apparent ease with which our hearts slip back into idolatry that the Dutch Reformed theologian Jodocus van Lodenstein (1620-1677) coined the phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, that is “the church reformed, always reforming.” Van Lodenstein was a part of the “Further Reformation” movement (Nadere Reformatie) in the Netherlands. Their concern was to prevent the church from lapsing back into darkness and error. They strove for further purity in their worship, practice, and doctrine. This movement was mirrored by English Reformed Puritans like William Perkins and William Ames.[1]

This phrase, semper reformanda, has encountered a great deal of abuse in recent years. The Mainline Protestant churches have a tendency to latch onto this idea (i.e. always reforming) as license to continually change the church. Often it was used to justify a moving away from purity in worship, practice, and doctrine. In 1967 the Presbyterian Church (USA), under the misguided use of semper reformanda, rejected the historic Reformed confessions and adopted a position that denied the nature of Scripture as inerrant and infallible. They saw the doctrine of the church as always in need of being changed to accommodate itself to the times. The doctrine, worship, and practice of the church needed to evolve in order to be relevant. This, of course, meant a rejection of sin, judgment, the miraculous, and anything else that might be distasteful to the modern and post-modern mind. It was not a desire to see our belief and behavior brought into conformity with God’s Word, but a desire to manufacture divine approval for unbiblical belief and behavior. Instead of being a guard to protect us from wandering from the faith once delivered, the phrase became the justification for it.

The phrase ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is now often appended with secundum verbum Dei, “the church reformed, always reforming…according to the Word of God.” The Reformers were catholic (small “c” meaning universal) in their views. They would never have imagined that sola Scriptura and semper reformanda would be used to create greater disunity and less purity in their orthodoxy. But our hearts easily slip back into idolatry.

If the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is to be anything other than a history lesson that simply engages the mind, then we need to allow our hearts to be quickened by the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of God’s Word. The Playmobil Martin Luther toy has sold over 1 million units. It is the #1 selling Playmobil figurine of all time. But if the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is about trinkets and stuff, then we’ve sadly missed the whole point. Our reflection on the Five Solas of the Reformation, on the key persons of the Reformation, on the doctrines of the Reformation, and on the errors of that time must bring us back to a deep desire for the glory of God alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Word of God alone.

 

[1] See R Scott Clark’s article Always Abusing Semper Reformanda, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/always-abusing-semper-reformanda/

Prayer – The Conclusion

The final section of the Lord’s Prayer is not a petition. In fact, it isn’t really even there. You are likely familiar with the ending of the Lord’s Prayer as “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.” If you look in an ESV Bible, you will notice this phrase is missing from Matthew 6:13 with a footnote stating, “some manuscripts add….” What does this mean? In the ancient manuscripts from which the earliest English translations (like the KJV) were derived, this phrase was often found attached to the end of the Lord’s Prayer. Some other later Greek manuscripts expanded this with “for ever and ever” and some even added a Trinitarian ascription, “…the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.” Likely it was added to adapt the prayer for liturgical use in the early church. Textual scholar Bruce Metzger theorizes that it was based upon the wording of 1 Chron 29:11-13.[1] But around the mid 19th century a collection of manuscripts, largely from the area around Alexandria, Egypt, began to be seen by scholars of the biblical texts as the oldest and best preserved. These older texts did not include this final ending. Neither did the Vulgate, which is why Roman Catholics have traditionally not included this final section in the Lord’s Prayer. As these texts became more of the basis for our English translations, the added phrase was removed. But it was still ingrained in our tradition to include it. So the final phrase stuck.

So should we include this final phrase as part of the Lord’s Prayer? In my opinion, sure. Jesus did not give us the Lord’s Prayer as a rote tool simply to be mindlessly repeated. It is a pattern, a form of prayer. The exact wording is not important but the ideas and the structure of the Lord’s Prayer should inform our prayers. And while this final phrase, though, strictly speaking, is not biblical, it is appropriate. It adds an appropriate finish to the Lord’s Prayer.

This final phrase reminds us of where we began. The Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father, who art in Heaven” and then concludes with “For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory.” We are reminded as we conclude our prayer that God is omnipotent and sovereign in the affairs of the world. We rest and rely on God’s majesty and power for all that we pray. And the goal of our prayers is not so much for the things which we have prayed as it is for the glory of God. Wilhelmus Á Brakel also notes that “it can be viewed as an enlargement of and an urgent plea related to the last petition…for God has all authority and power over both the tempters and the ones being tempted.”[2] Taken together, the supplicant praying the Lord’s Prayer acknowledges that God is able to satisfy according to his will all our requests. From eternity to eternity, the kingdom and the power and the glory are God’s. He does not change. He does not waver. “The believers upon earth – from Adam until Christ coming to judgment, from generation to generation – declare, ‘Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever’ (Rev 5:13).”[3]

Finally, the prayer concludes with the simple word, “Amen.” This comes from a Hebrew word which means truth or firm. It was transliterated into Greek and into English. The early Church Father Justin Martyr wrote about the early Christian worship service. He mentioned that the leader and all those present would shout “Amen” at the end of the prayers. Then Justin Martyr adds, “And ‘Amen’ in the Hebrew language means, ‘May it be!’.”[4] In the Greek, Justin Martyr used the same word that the Apostle Paul uses in Romans 6:2 when he says, “By no means!” except without the negative. Clarence Jordan’s paraphrase of the New Testament into the Southern dialect in the Cotton Patch Gospel translates this phrase as “Heck no!” When we conclude our prayers with “amen” we need to recognize that this is a declaration of faith in confidence. It would be like ending our prayer with a “Heck yeah.”

Do I believe without reservation and without wavering? Am I confident in the power and glory of the God to whom I am praying? Calvin encourages us that by praying amen, “our hope is strengthened that all things of this sort have already been brought to pass, and will surely be granted to us, since they have been promised by God, who cannot deceive.”[5] Our God is majestic, powerful, and glorious without end. He is faithful to answer our prayers. Amen.

[1] Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 14.

[2] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.587.

[3] Brakel, 3.588.

[4] Justin Martyr, Apologies 65.3-5

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; vol. 1; The Library of Christian Classics; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 916.

A Reflection on Corporate Prayer

Prayer is a pretty important thing in the Bible. The word “pray” (and prays, prayed, prayer, etc.) appears 322 times in your English Bible. Pastor Donny has shown that prayer is central to the Christian life. But when we think about prayer, we probably only think about individual prayer. Maybe you think about locking yourself in a prayer closet to draw near to God. You might think about quiet time or private meditations. Chances are high that corporate prayer is not on your mind very often. You can point to instances of corporate prayer: you may pray corporately before meals; we all pray corporately a prayer of confession each Lord’s Day. But on the whole there is usually an imbalance between individual and corporate prayer life. In light of this imbalance, I hope to stir conversation—even action—on corporate prayer. To do this, I’d like first to show what the Bible says about corporate prayer. Then, I’ll give three reasons why we should have more corporate prayer in our lives.

When we look at the rhythms of the church in Acts, we are struck by the frequency of corporate prayer. When the disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension but before Pentecost, they “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). After narrating Peter’s Pentecost sermon, Luke notes that the believers were devoting themselves to four things, “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). When Peter was arrested and imprisoned during an outbreak of persecution, “earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church” (12:5). The church’s prayer habits came from the synagogue, but the church made it even more central. This is because we have an advocate with the Father, the risen Christ. And Christ promised as much in his own teaching. He said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14). Jesus said this after teaching the disciples that they would do greater works than he himself had done. These greater works are the Great Commission, i.e. the spread of the gospel and the salvation of souls. These greater works are accomplished in part by the fervent prayer of believers.[1] So it is no surprise that the church frequently prayed. As members of the church, we should be encouraged to do the same.

With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few reasons why we need to balance our individual prayer with a high view of corporate prayer. First, we should recognize that prayer, in general, is set among other corporate ordinary means of grace in the life of the church. The ordinary means of grace are the reading and preaching of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments, and prayer. While the reading of the Word is often an individual pursuit, the Westminster Assembly also had in mind the corporate reading of Scripture. Question 90 of the Shorter Catechism asks, “How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?” This is why we publicly read Scripture on the Lord’s Day in corporate worship. Also, the sacraments are only to be done as the gathered body of Christ. So, there is a corporate aspect to each of the ordinary means of grace. For this reason, the corporate aspect of prayer should also be emphasized.

Second, we should be aware of a culture of individualism that de-emphasizes corporate anything. Consider the egocentric lyrics of Frank Sinatra’s song, “My Way”. “I’ve lived a life that’s full/I’ve traveled each and every highway/But more, much more than this/I did it my way.” While swinging to the opposite extreme is just as unhealthy, balancing the individual and the community is one way we can witness to our neighbors caught up in a culture of individualism. And this balance is quite biblical. Peter instructs his readers to “love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22). We cannot really love one another earnestly unless we come together corporately. By our union with Christ and adoption by the Father, we are brothers and sisters, and so we should spend time as a family in spiritual and social fellowship.

Finally, corporate prayer is a practical way to develop spiritual disciplines in ourselves and our covenant children. By praying corporately, we become more proficient in expressing praise, thanks, and needs to God. We learn how to pray by listening to each other. We develop our individual prayer life by joining in corporate prayer life. More than that, we model for the children of our church just how important prayer is. Though the children of this church may not be yours, you do pledge to support their parents in their development. One way to fulfill this vow is to model a vibrant prayer life by praying with believers of all ages.

What then shall we do? We should seek opportunity to come together to pray with and for one another, to praise our God and to plead for his grace and mercy in our lives and the lives of those around us. When we pray with and for each other, we fulfill Peter’s exhortation to love one another earnestly. When we come together to pray for the mission of the church, we are participating in the greater works that Jesus promised. My hope and prayer is that we find ways to pray together for the glory of God and the good of our souls.

[1] Ryan M. McGraw, “A Theology of Corporate Prayer: Preaching, Prayer Meetings, and You,” Puritan Reformed Journal 4.2 (2012): 175–76.

Prayer – Deliver Us from Evil

The sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is divided into two parts. Last week we looked at the negative aspect, “Lead us not into temptation.” We are weak and prone to sin. We need God’s grace and strength to be made holy and to remain in a state of holiness. This week we’ll look at the positive aspect of the petition, “Deliver us from evil.” This portion of the petition acknowledges the all too often felt reality that we live in a “present evil age” (Gal 1:4). This world is fallen and we see the effects of creation’s rebellion against its Creator all around us. We are all in need of deliverance.

The theme of deliverance runs throughout the Scriptures. Since Adam’s fall in the Garden, God has promised the hope of redemption and deliverance. The curses of Genesis 3 are met with the promise that God would bring a redeemer who would deliver man. Jacob’s family is delivered by his son Joseph, even after Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery (Gen 37-50). The book of Exodus details the story of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Joshua details their deliverance from the wilderness wanderings into the Promised Land. The prophets all point to Israel and Judah’s deliverance from captivity into freedom. Ruth and Naomi looked for a kinsman redeemer, Boaz, to deliver them from their destitution. And all of this points to the ultimate deliverance of the sons of Adam from sin, death, and Devil by the redemptive work of the Messiah. The whole of the New Testament looks back on the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Deliverer, and then applies it to all who would believe in Him by faith.

Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in praying “deliver us from evil” is in keeping with the redemptive arc of the Scriptures. The problem of sin is universal. In Romans 3 Paul quotes from Psalm 14 in declaring that, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). Paul goes on to note that this bondage and death is applied to all mankind because all mankind fell when Adam, the first man, fell (Rom 5:12). The net result of this is that all mankind is in bondage to sin. We are all slaves of sin (Rom 6:6). We are not sinners because we sin. Rather, we sin because we are sinners. Our problem is that we are enslaved by and in bondage to sin. And this sin also effects every part of this world. Paul explains in Romans 8 that “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:20-22). Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, and tornadoes are the groans of creation under the weight, burden, and bondage of sin. All of creation needs and longs for deliverance. We need to be delivered.

There is some debate as to whether this petition asks for deliverance from “evil” or “the Evil One.” The question essentially is whether this is deliverance from a general sense of evil or the personification of evil in Satan. I think as has been explained above, the answer is yes to both. It is unnecessary to differentiate. Deliverance from one is deliverance from the other. Calvin notes that either way, we remain “in danger danger from the devil and from sin, if the Lord does not protect and deliver us.”[1]

As we pray, we should look to Christ for our help. “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps 121:1-2). Jesus give this dire warning, “in this world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33). There will be trial and temptation. There will be struggles and hardships. You will experience the effects of a creation that groans and heaves against the presence of sin in this world. You will feel the oppression of the bondage of sin. But “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide a way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13). Jesus dire warning in Jn 16 is not all bad news. You will have tribulation, but Jesus promises to deliver us from evil. “Take heart, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).

[1] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke (vol. 1; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 329.

Prayer – Lead Us Not into Temptation

The sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We will address the first half of this petition this week, and then follow up with the back half next week. Wilhelmus À Brakel, the 17th century Dutch theologian, noted that the first three petitions teach us to pray for “three great matters: God’s name to be hallowed, His kingdom come, and His will be done.” As the one praying for this, we are involved in how this prayer is answered. So Brakel points out that we must also pray for ourselves, that we would be in a position in which we can effect these petitions. The fourth petition addresses those things which are necessary for our body to function and be in good condition – our daily bread. The fifth petition addresses the fact that man in his sin cannot approach God nor do anything for Him. We are in need of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. “Forgive us our debts.” And finally, the sixth petition prays for the weakness of our flesh, so that we might be preserved in a state of holiness and thus remain fit to effect these three great matters. “Lead us not into temptation.”[1]

The sense of the word “temptation” in the Bible is that of testing. This can be toward positive ends. God can test a believer, or in a sense “tempt” him. God tested Abraham when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Gen 22:1). He tested Israel with manna (Ex 16:4). These are trials and tests that are meant to refine and build up the believer. This is like the goldsmith refining and purifying his gold in the fire. There are also temptations that are negative. Jesus’ opponents tested him, trying to catch him in a trap (Matt 16:1, 22:18). Man can be enticed by temptation to sin (Gal 6:1, James 1:13-14). But to whatever end, temptation is a testing or trial.

As noted there are a number of different types of temptations. When Jesus instructed his disciples to pray about temptation, he was speaking of those negative temptations. Thomas Watson, the English Puritan and member of the Westminster Assembly, wrote that these temptations come both from within and from without. From within we can notice that the heart is a “kindling of sin, a breeder of evil. Our own hearts are the greatest tempters.”[2] Temptation from without come from other people, the world, but principally from Satan. He is a strongman bound. (Matt 12:29) He has been defeated by Christ, but he is still powerful and seeks to inflict as much harm as possible.

There was a story of a man who was attempting to poison Martin Luther. Luther had been warned by another and given a picture of the man who wanted to kill him. Luther was able to avoid the poison because when he recognized his would-be assassin’s face, he knew to take heed. Knowing the manner in which we face temptations today will help us to take heed and avoid falling into sin. John Calvin categorized temptations between the “right” and the “left.” Those temptations on the right are riches, power, honors, and those things which seem to dull men’s awareness. Calvin warned of the glitter of gold and things which seem good. They captivate and inebriate such that we will forget God. Those temptations on the left are poverty, disgrace, contempt, afflictions, and the like. When beaten down by these hardships, we can become despondent, giving up hope. We run the risk of giving up hope.[3] Watson lists 27 different subtleties of Satan. Reading them is an exhaustive list of the ways in which we are tempted to sin. He warns us that while Satan “does not know the hearts of men, he may feel their pulse, know their temper, and can apply himself accordingly.”[4] We will be tempted with good things at the wrong time or in the wrong way. We will be tempted when we are weak. We will be tempted when we feel strong. Augustine noted that “the whole of a saint’s life is temptation.”

But God will use these temptations for his wise and holy ends. He will refine us. They will keep us from pride. We will be better able to comfort those in distress. And they will make us long for heaven.[5] We must also remember that no temptation has overtaken you. God will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability. There is always an avenue of escape (1 Cor 10:13). So, we must stand firm in the face of temptation. In the face of temptation, Jesus instructs us to pray. Brakel calls prayer a “whip for the devil.” We should use that whip and drive away those temptations that we might be fit for the task to which God has called us.

[1] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.573.

[2] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 258.

[3] Jean Calvin, John T McNeill, and Ford Lewis Battles, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 3.20.46.

[4] Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 262.

[5] Ibid., 282.

Prayer – Forgive Us, Our Debts

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in ministry, and one of the lessons I am continually working to help others implement into their own lives and relationships, is the lesson of forgiveness. Seeking for and freely offering up forgiveness. Dr. Bill Bright, the founder of Cru, once taught me that the 12 most important words in marriage are: I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me. I love you. Those 12 words can radically transform even the most difficult marriages. They can heal the most painful hurts. Forgiveness is powerful.

The fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for forgiveness. The petition is that God would “forgive us our debts.” The disposition of the one praying is to be “as we forgive our debtors.” The object of our prayer is our “debts” and the requested action is that these debts be “forgiven.” And then this same action is required of us toward those around us.

First, a note about the physical and spiritual needs of the human. We are to pray for our physical needs. The fourth petition is for our “daily bread.” We have real physical bodies that have real physical needs. We should not neglect those needs. However, we need to acknowledge that we also have real immaterial souls. These souls also have needs. And far too often we are much more preoccupied with the physical rather than the spiritual needs of our lives. The fourth petition deals with the physical. The fifth and sixth petitions deal with spiritual. Without neglecting the former, we must acknowledge that the prayer emphasizes the latter by a 2:1 margin. Having our daily bread is nothing without forgiveness. A belly that is full and a soul that is empty is a truly impoverished life.

The fifth petition deals with our “debt.” To understand what is meant by “debt” we need to understand that God is our Creator. All that man is and all that man has comes from God. À Brakel notes, “It is for this reason that man is obligated to exist for God with his entire being – not only as a matter of gratitude, but on account of an obligation to God by virtue of the covenant of works, established with the human race in Adam, whereby salvation was promised on condition of obedience – a covenant to which man has fully committed himself.”[1] Sin against God is a debt owed to God. And sinners are debtors. Thomas Watson explains that this is the worst kind of debt for several reasons. Man has nothing with which he can pay God. He has no righteousness and therefore has no way to repay God. Man has sinned against an infinite majesty. If you destroy a doodle on a scratch piece of paper, it is no big deal. If you destroy a Rembrandt, it is a big deal. Also, man’s sin has been multiplied. It is sin upon sin upon sin. There is no denying this or shifting the blame. Man is in debt to God and deserves not just a debtor’s prison but the eternal fires of hell.[2]

But God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 Jn 1:9). God’s justice will not allow the debt of sin to go unpaid. But God’s mercy has provided a way of forgiveness through the substitutionary atonement in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of this Son” (Rom 5:10). “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18).  Jesus paid the debt that you and I could not possibly pay. Through this divine exchange our sins are lifted away, covered up, blotted out, scattered like a cloud, and cast into the sea.

This petition also presupposed a particular disposition in the life of the person praying. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” If the prayer read “…because we forgive our debtors” then we could assume that our forgiveness of others merits God’s forgiveness of us. But it does not read that way. Our forgiveness does not merit forgiveness. Forgiveness is a grace of God brought about only through the blood of Jesus Christ. Neither are we able to grant perfect forgiveness or absolution from sin. Only God can offer that. But some sins, particularly those of the so-called second Table of the Law (i.e. Commandments 5-10), are committed against God and man. Sins committed against God and man need to be forgiven by God and man. Man’s forgiveness is but a poor reflection of divine forgiveness. But just as divine forgiveness is necessary for a relationship with God, human forgiveness is necessary for healthy and life-giving relationships with other people. Thomas Watson describes the unforgiving spirit as an “obstruction in the body” or “bowels which are shut up.” The person who is unwilling to forgive is like one whose colon is impacted such that excrement can no longer pass. The person who is unwilling to forgive is literally full of it. But the Lord’s Prayer calls on us to seek forgiveness from God and to freely give forgiveness to others.

[1] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.556.

[2] Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (London; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 211 ff.

Prayer – Our Daily Bread

Often when we think about our need for prayer it relates to a particular request in our lives. As a church family, we will send out prayer requests for those who are ill or facing difficult circumstances. When there is a need in our church body, we’ll ask the people to pray. When we think about prayer, I believe it is fair to say that we’re most often thinking about this type of intercessory prayer. We are to pray for God to intercede and provide for our needs. When we are lacking in some capacity, we should ask God to fill that deficiency. This is a good type of prayer. But it isn’t the only type of prayer.

As Jesus instructs his disciples to pray, there is an order to that prayer. And intercessory prayers are not first in that order. First we are instructed to pray, “Hallowed by thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” This order rightly emphasizes and prioritizes that which is most important, God’s glory. We are often tempted to run to our needs, wants, and desires before we acknowledge the sufficiency and satisfaction that is found in God alone. Augustine noted in his Confessions, “He loves thee too little, who loves anything as well as thee which he does not love for thy sake.” Augustine is highlighting that if when we place things, even important things like our daily bread, before God then we are guilty of loving God too little. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see it as outright idolatry when we love the gifts of God more than God himself. But Augustine also notes that there is a proper order and place for desiring, loving, and praying for the things that God gives. We must cherish the gifts and blessings of God for God’s sake.

The early 17th century English poet, John Donne, captured a similar sentiment in his poem A Hymn to Christ. Donne’s spiritual life is hard to quantify. He was a Roman Catholic in the late 16th century England, when it was not popular to be Roman Catholic. He converted to Protestantism, but had lived a wild and promiscuous life. He eventually was converted and became a minister in the Church of England, serving at St. Paul’s in London. His early poetry was considered “pornographic” by contemporaries but his later works turned that love and amorousness toward God, much like the Song of Solomon. His A Hymn to Christ is an ode to God declaring his desire to separate from anything that might distract his heart from God. The final stanza reads, “Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All, / On whom those fainter beames of love did fall; / Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee / on Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.” Our “beames of love” often fall on “false mistresses” but we pray that they would be married to God only. Our loves and desires for the Creator and for the creation must be rightly ordered.

The second aspect of this fourth petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” is that we are to pray for things needful in this life. The matter of order does not eliminate or remove the reality that we need certain material things for life. Once rightly ordered, it is not only appropriate but required that we ask God for the material needs of our life. “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me” (Prov 30:8). This is not a petition that can simply be spiritualized. This is a call to God for real, material, and tangible goods. The apostle John prays for Gaius in 3 John 2, “that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” It is good to pray for the prosperity of our souls and our bodies. We are not either bodies or souls, but we are bodies AND souls. And bodies need bread.

When Jesus taught us to pray for “bread” he meant all manner of food and livelihood. We are to ask God to give this to us. This implies that we do not already possess this bread, but that it is the possession of God. We ask because we cannot simply produce this bread on our own. “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Ps 104:14, 15). We have no right to bread neither have we merited it, but God is gracious and generous, and he provides abundantly for us. We pray with full expectation that God will give us this bread. He is our Father and as our Father he will give what we need. “Which one of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matt 7:9).

Lastly, we pray for our “daily” bread. Our prayers for those things needful in life are to be marked by a confident dependence on God. We should be good stewards of all entrusted to us. We should save, plan, and prepare for the future. But we must always do so in a way in which we express our trust not in savings accounts or storehouses, but in God’s consistent provision. We should pray satisfied with the present and unconcerned about tomorrow, because God will provide for tomorrow tomorrow. “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt 6:27). “It is vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil” (Ps 127:2). If we really grasp this, then anxiety and fear should melt away.

Prayer – Thy Will Be Done

The human tendency toward superstitions is strong. We often spiritualize objects, beliefs, and patterns without thinking. The professional athlete may be the most superstitious person today. Their routine and equipment can take on an almost religious devotion. Others cling to objects or talismans to protect them from wrong decisions or bad luck. Sometimes we can even make our devotional life into a superstitious pattern.

This is often the case because, as Dr. Scott Redd has noted, life is complex and confusing. Superstition simplifies this complexity into an input-output equation.[1] Do this and it will go well. Don’t do this and it will not. In this way we can pretend to have control. We can pretend to manage things beyond our control. But this sense of control is false.

As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, the third petition in the Lord’s Prayer instructed them to pray for God’s will to be done. “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). This simple prayer is both an acknowledgement and request. It acknowledges that we need God to be in control. And it requests that God would bring his will to bear upon our lives. In a seemingly chaotic and confusing world, we need this prayer.

What is God’s will? Only man, created in the image of God, can know God’s will. The rest of creation is unaware of God’s will. This will was intuitively and clearly known by man because it was imprinted upon him. But in the fall everything became corrupted and distorted. Man’s alienation from God created a rift or division between him and God. Pharaoh expressed the sentiment of every sinner’s heart, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice…I do not know the LORD” (Ex 5:2). Man began to rule his life according to his own lusts and desires. He declared himself to be his own master. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

But when a person is converted, his own will becomes “burdensome and grievous to himself.” He realizes that he no longer follows and lives by God’s will, but his heart is changed such that he desires to follow it. “Since he knows that both he and all other men are unworthy, impotent, and incapable of this, and that such obedience is a gracious gift of God, he therefore avails himself of prayer and prays in humility, ‘Thy will be done.’”[2]

When theologians speak of God’s will, they typically speak about two aspects of it; God’s decretal will and his preceptive will. God’s decretal will is also known as his sovereign, secret, or hidden will. This is the will of God by which all things ordained by God come to pass. God chooses to permit all things that happen. There is no thing that occurs outside of God’s sovereign gaze. Anything that happens, happens because God has willed it to be so. This is not what is prayed for in the third petition.

The second aspect is God’s preceptive will, that is his revealed will. God has made certain parts of his will known to us by revealing them through his Word. It is God’s will that we worship only God, that we do not commit adultery, that we be holy, that we repent of sin. We know this through God’s Word and our conscience because the law has been written on our hearts. This revealed will informs us as to what God would have us do. While we cannot thwart God’s decretal will, we can thwart his preceptive will. God allows or permits our sin because he will use it for good purposes. We have the power to violate his preceptive will, but not the authority. We are morally culpable when we break it.

This is why we must pray for God’s will to be done. It is not for his decretal will. That will happen regardless. We pray for his preceptive will to be done. And for it to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” In heaven the power and even the very presence of sin is gone. “Alas! How defective are we in our obedience here! How far we fall short! We cannot write a copy of holiness without blotting. Our holy things are blemished like the moon, which, when it shines brightest, has a dark spot in it; but in heaven we shall do God’s will perfectly, as the angels in glory.” We long for the day when we see the holiness of the kingdom of God fully bear upon all that is broken and fallen in this world, especially in our own lives. So we pray for “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

[1] Scott Redd, “Don’t Be a Superstitious Christian,” TGC – The Gospel Coalition, accessed September 6, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dont-be-a-superstitious-christian.

[2] Wilhelmus Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 Vols. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015), 3.524.