The Spoils of War

“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1)

The good news in the story of Jesus’ temptation is that Jesus obeyed God and defeated temptation at every point where Israel, and Adam, and you and I have failed! Jesus was tempted as our brother, captain, and king. Adam, our first representative, was tempted in paradise and failed. Jesus, the second Adam and our final representative, was tempted in the desert and conquered. He reversed every aspect of the fall.

What Jesus won in this initial victory was soon to be completed in his decisive victory on the cross and over the grave. Just as the young David, freshly anointed as Israel’s king, assumed the role of champion and defeated Goliath on Israel’s behalf, so Jesus, anointed by the Spirit in his baptism, assumed the role of our champion, to defeat and disarm the devil.

When an ancient king won a battle on behalf of his people, he shared with them the plunder of the battle. His victory meant wealth for them. So it is with Christ. He has won the decisive battle against sin and Satan, and he shares with us the spoils of war.

The story of Jesus’ temptation has a very practical application, but it is different from what we might first expect. The application is not merely moral exhortation to resist or flee temptation, though Scripture does, of course, command us to both flee and resist. But the Scriptures do so much more. They provide us with rich and wonderful, gospel-laden, grace-infused, Spirit-inspired applications of Christ’s priestly work to our lives.

For example, we learn in Hebrews 2 that Christ shared human nature with us. He was “made like his brothers in every respect” (v. 17). He “partook” of our same “flesh and blood” (v. 14), or had the same basic human nature that we have. As we saw in the first chapter of this book, the eternal Son united human nature to himself in the incarnation. And his union with us in nature becomes the foundation for our union with him in grace. His shared humanity with us equips him to be a “merciful and faithful high priest” (v. 17) who “suffered when tempted” and therefore “is able to help those who are being tempted” (v. 18).

Also, in Hebrews 4:14–16, we see that Jesus not only helps us but also sympathizes with our weaknesses because he “has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (v. 15). When you are tempted, Jesus doesn’t stand over you with condemnation and judgment. He stands beside you with understanding and compassion and readiness to give mercy and grace to help in time of need. Do you see what the writer to the Hebrews is doing? He is appealing to Christ’s incarnation and priestly work in order to encourage tempted and suffering believers.

Finally, we see also in Hebrews 4 that the same one who took our nature, endured temptation, and conquered it on our behalf has now ascended to God in human nature. Our great high priest “has passed through the heavens” (v. 14). He is at the right hand of God, interceding for us (Rom. 8:34). Take heart in knowing that you have a brother on the throne.

Married to Christ

"The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh (Eph. 5:31–32). And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage— indeed the most perfect of all marriages, since human marriages are but poor examples of this one true marriage—it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his . . . Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome them all. Now since it was such a one who did all this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater than the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. Thus the believing soul by means of the pledge of its faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom."
—Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray (Book Review)

Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture by David Murray is an excellent treatment of the problems men (especially pastors) face in midlife and the need for intentional rest, renewal, and restoration. 

Murray relates how his own experience of burnout and resulting health problems in his forties led to serious changes in his lifestyle. 

This book is, in many ways, like Wayne Cordeiro's Leading on Empty (a book Murray seems unaware of, or at least never quotes). In some respects, it is even better. Cordeiro writes as a mainstream evangelical megachurch pastor. While his advice is often good, his theology is sometimes sloppy and his applications out of reach for ordinary people with limited resources. Murray is more grounded, both in theology (writing from a Reformed perspective) and in real life. 

Murray covers almost all the bases (sleep, recreation, exercise, diet, life purpose, goal setting, time management, personal relationships, and one's relationship to the gracious God of the gospel throughout) and includes lots of helpful statistics, insightful quotes, personal stories, and practical application. 

I read the book in less than twenty-four hours and will probably read through again more slowly. 

Highly recommended. 

The Christ-Centeredness of C. H. Spurgeon

One of my heroes is Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous Baptist pastor of nineteenth century London. In reading Spurgeon, I am convinced that one of the secrets behind the extraordinary fruitfulness of his ministry and the enduring legacy of his sermons was his relentless focus on the person and work of Christ.


Spurgeon’s Christ-centered focus is evident in the first words he spoke in the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which was built to accommodate the multitudes of people who came to hear him preach. Setting the tone of the thirty years of ministry which would follow, he said:


“I would propose that the subject of the ministry in this house, as long as this platform shall stand, shall be the Person of Jesus Christ. I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist. I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist. But if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’”[1]


Christ-Centered Preaching and Teaching

Spurgeon was Christ-centered in his preaching and taught his students to be the same.


“From every town, village, and little hamlet in England, wherever it may be, there is a road to London… and so from every text in Scripture there is a road to the metropolis of the Scriptures, that is Christ. Your business is, when you get to a text, to say, ‘Now, what is the road to Christ?’ and then preach a sermon, running along the road towards the great metropolis—Christ.”[2]


Spurgeon did occasionally err in his exegesis, seeing allegories to Christ where better hermeneutics would take the reader to Jesus by a different (and perhaps more lengthy) route. But the aim of his counsel is certainly correct. He certainly felt that his preaching was in sync with the words of the Apostle Paul who determined to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2) and boasted in nothing except the cross of Christ (Gal. 6:14). As Spurgeon said of Paul,

“Paul’s harp had only one string, but he brought such music out of it as never came from any other. He found such infinite variety in Christ that he never exhausted his theme; with him, it was Christ first, Christ last, Christ midst, Christ everywhere; so he could never have his pen in his hand without writing something in praise of his glorious Lord and Savior.”[3]

Christ-Centered and Spirit-Blessed

Furthermore, Spurgeon felt that his emphasis on Christ would be blessed by the Holy Spirit who is given to the church to glorify Christ (John 16:14). In fact, he believed the lack of anointing in preaching was due to a lack of Christ-centeredness. He once said,


“Where there is nothing of Christ, brethren, there is nothing of unction, nothing of savour. . . . Leave Christ out of your preaching, and you have taken milk from the children, you have taken the strong meat from the men. But if your object as a teacher or preacher is to glorify Christ and to lead men to love him and trust him, that is the very work on which the heart of God himself is set. The Lord and you are pulling together, and God the Holy Ghost can set his seal to a work like that.”[4]


Christ-Centered Theology 

It is a well-known and indisputable fact that Spurgeon was Calvinistic in his theology. But this never lessened his passion for Christ and never produced indolence in evangelism. He rather saw the doctrines of grace as important only in their relation to Christ. He said:


“What is doctrine after all but the throne whereon Christ sitteth, and when the throne is vacant what is the throne to us? Doctrines are the shovel and tongs of the altar, while Christ is the sacrifice smoking thereon. Doctrines are Christ’s garments; verily they smell of myrrh, and cassia, and aloes out of the ivory palaces, whereby they make us glad, but it is not the garments we care for as much as the person, the very person of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[5]


This emphasis, however, did not lead Spurgeon away from doctrinal teaching. It simply kept doctrine subservient to Christ, as the following passage reveals:

“If I preach Christ I must preach him as the covenant head of his people, and how far am I then from the doctrine of election? If I preach Christ I must preach the efficacy of his blood, and how far am I removed then from the great doctrine of an effectual atonement? If I preach Christ I must preach the love of his heart, and how can I deny the final perseverance of the saints? If I preach the Lord Jesus as the great Head and King, how far am I removed from divine Sovereignty? Must I not, if I preach Christ personally, preach his doctrines? I believe they are nothing but the natural outgrowth of that great root thought, or root substance rather, the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He who will preach Christ fully will never lax in doctrine.”[6]


Christ-Centered Evangelism

Spurgeon’s Christ-centeredness also impacted the way he evangelized and taught people to seek salvation.


“Remember, sinner, it is not thy hold of Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not thy joy in Christ that saves thee – it is Christ; it is not even faith in Christ, though that is the instrument – it is Christ’s blood and merits; therefore, look not to thy hope, but to Christ, the source of thy hope; look not to thy faith, but to Christ, the author and finisher of thy faith; and if thou doest that, ten thousand devils cannot throw thee down . . . . Let me beseech thee, look only to Christ; never expect deliverance from self, from ministers, or from any means of any kind apart from Christ; keep thine eye simply on Him; let His death, His agonies, His intercession, be fresh upon thy mind; when thou wakest in the morning look for Him; when thou liest down at night look for Him.”[7]



The Roots of Christ-Centeredness: Love for Christ Himself

Spurgeon’s Christ-centeredness sprung from a deep and personal relationship with the Lord. He loved Christ deeply and passionately and his sermons are filled with rapturous exaltation of Christ. He eloquently said,


“If you leave out Christ, you have left the sun out of the day, and the moon out of the night, you have left the waters out of the sea, and the floods out of the river, you have left the harvest out of the year, the soul out of the body, you have left joy out of heaven, you robbed all of it's all. There is no gospel worth thinking of, much less worth proclaiming, if Jesus be forgotten. We must have Jesus as Alpha and Omega in all our ministries.”[8]


Perhaps Spurgeon never put it more succinctly than when he said, “If you take Christ out of Christianity, Christianity is dead.”[9]


Christ-Centered to the End

Near the end of his ministry, Spurgeon said,


“If I had only one more sermon to preach before I died, it would be about my Lord Jesus Christ. And I think that when we get to the end of our ministry, one of our regrets will be that we did not preach more of him. I am sure no minister will ever repent of having preached him too much.”[10]


Notes

[1] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “The First Sermon in the Tabernacle” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 169.

[2] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Christ Precious to Believers” in The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994 reprint).

[3] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Great Forgiveness for Great Sin” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 49 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint), p. 613. I’m grateful to have discovered several of these quotations in an article by Mark Minnick entitled “First Partaker” available online at: http://www.f-b-f.org/WebMan/Article.asp?ID=4079&Count=true.

[4] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “A Great Sermon by the Greatest Preacher” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 41 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 187.

[5] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “The Love of Jesus, What It Is None but His Loved Ones Know” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 8 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 339. Quoted in Iain H. Murray, Spurgeon v. Hyper-calvinism: The Battle for Gospel Preaching (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995), p. 122.

[6]C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “The First Sermon in the Tabernacle” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 7 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 169. Quoted in Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1992) p. 291.

[7] C. H. Spurgeon in a sermon entitled “The Comer’s Conflict with Satan” in The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994 reprint).

[8] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Alpha and Omega” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 9 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 720.

[9] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “Our Manifesto,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 37 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint).

[10] C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon entitled “An Exciting Inquiry” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vol. 54 (Pasadena: Pilgrim Publications, 1977 reprint) p. 149.

Christ All Sufficient


What does it mean to say that Christ is sufficient, and why does it matter? It means that Christ in all of his fullness really is everything we need. And it matters because without him we can do nothing.

To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that there is nothing else in addition to Jesus that we need for salvation, life, satisfaction, or fullness. There are no bonuses or extras. There is no gold membership to be attained only by any elite few. If Christ really is sufficient, then Christianity can do without the extra “-isms”: legalism, mysticism, gnosticism, asceticism, monasticism, sacerdotalism, and so on. If Jesus is all that you need, then you don't need anything else. That's right. Nada, nothing, zilch.

We can go even further. The claim that Christ is sufficient means not only that we need no additions to Jesus, but also that any such additions are actually subtractions. To try to add something to Jesus is to diminish what he has already done. If you say that you need Jesus plus angels, or Jesus plus the law, or Jesus plus moral achievement, or Jesus plus a second work of grace, or Jesus plus anything else – then you take something away from Jesus. To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has already blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, in Christ. To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that God has already given us everything we need for life and godliness through his own Son. To say that Christ is sufficient is to say that the only thing the branch needs in order to bear fruit is to be vitally connected to the vine.

Jesus is the vine.

But the declaration the Christ is sufficient should not make us complacent. We need to be careful to not draw the wrong conclusion or make the wrong application. The completeness of Christ's work does not mean that we have no needs. It means that all of the needs we have are met in Christ. It means that we desperately need Christ!

We need Christ in all of his fullness. We need not half a Jesus, but the whole Jesus. We need the intoxicating one-hundred-proof Jesus, not the safe, bland, non-alcoholic watered-down version. We need the authentic Jesus in all of his humble humanity and terrifying deity. We need Christ in his meekness and majesty, his suffering and glory, his crucifixion and resurrection, his incarnation and ascension, first coming and his second.

Jesus is 100% of what we need. And we need 100% of Jesus.

We need Jesus in his redeeming, liberating grace. We need his forgiveness for our sins, his cleansing for our consciences, and his power for our obedience. We need Jesus in his supremacy over all earthly and unearthly powers, whether those powers are angels, principalities, and powers in the heavenly realms, or Caesars, senators, and presidents in the kingdoms of men. We need Jesus as the perfect portrait of the invisible God, Jesus as the true imago Dei, Jesus as the new and better Adam, and Jesus as the greater son of David who in the strength of weakness sets his people free from the monsters of sin and death.

We need Jesus as justifier and sanctifier. We need Jesus as the Savior and Lord of the church, the husband of the bride, and the head of the body. We need him as Lion of the tribe of Judah and as the Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world. We need him as prophet, priest, and king. We need him as bread of life and fountain of living waters.  We need him as the door to walk through, the way to walk on, and the goal to which we walk, the prize for which we run, and the Captain for whom we fight. We need Jesus as Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, first and last.

Furthermore, we need Jesus in all of life. We need Jesus informing our minds and we need Jesus forming our hearts. We need Jesus in the closet, the bedroom, dining room, the playroom, the boardroom, and on the street. We need Jesus when we play, when we worship, when we work, and when we pray. We need Jesus in our churches, our classrooms, and our homes.

We need Jesus in and through all the vicissitudes of life. We need Jesus to remove the burden of sin at Calvary and to strengthen us for the long pilgrimage to the Celestial City.  We need him to walk with us through the Valley of Humiliation. We need him to help us make the hard climb up Hill Difficulty. We need him to pull us from the Slough of Despond and to rescue us from Doubting Castle.

We need Jesus for singleness, marriage, parenting, empty-nesting, and grandparenting. We need him college and career, at home and abroad, in our waking and in our sleeping, in our living and in our dying.

We need Jesus. In all that we are, we need all that he is. Our need is great. But his sufficiency is greater.

The whole Bible proclaims the sufficiency of Christ. The Bible is about the Father’s plan to redeem his people and restore the world through the all-sufficient work of his Son through the power of his life-giving Spirit. If the whole of Scripture is a symphony, this is its melodic theme.

This is nowhere more evident than in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I wrote a little book on Colossians called Christ All Sufficient.  You don’t need to read my book. You need Christ. You need the word of Christ to dwell richly in your heart, and Colossians is part of that word. So you need Colossians. If you would like to grow in your understanding of Colossians (and thus grow in your understanding of Christ’s glorious sufficiency), then perhaps my book will help. But you don’t need another book, seminar, or lecture. You need Christ himself.

Do you have him?



This post was originally written for The Blazing Center

Top Ten Books of 2016


Ever since reading Louis L'Amour's Education of a Wandering Man when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, I've been keeping lists of the books I've read each year. For the past several years, I've also been writing some version of a Top 10 or Best of list. I enjoy reading such lists from other friends and usually discover new titles to read and explore.

These are not necessarily books that were published this year, but rather my favorites from the books I read this year. 

10. The Spirit and the Letter, Saint Augustine. One of my friends and conversation partners recommended this treatise from Augustine for his insights on the relationship between law and gospel, old covenant and new. I read John Burnaby's translation in the  Library of Christian Classics edition of Augustine's Later Works. Very good. 

9. The Road to Character, David Brooks. I actually haven't completed it yet, but after reading most of Brooks' thoughtful commentary on the 2016 Presidential election, I decided to buy his best-selling treatment of ethics. Brooks begins by contrasting two sorts of virtues, what he calls resumé virtues and eulogy virtues, and then builds his study of the latter around biographical sketches of historical figures as varied as George Eliot, Francis Perkins, Johnny Unitas, and Saint Augustine. After an election season where character seemed to matter less than ever before, this is an important book for everyone. 

8. John Owen and English Puritanism: Studies in Defeat, Crawford Gribben. This biography of my favorite dead theologian (or maybe second favorite, see #1 below) is both a study of a man and an era. It was both informative and interesting, providing new insight into the overall character of Owen's life and ministry. Gribben has done for Owen what Peter Brown did for Augustine, George Marsden did for Edwards, and Bruce Gordon did for Calvin. 

7. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a’Kempis. There are definitely some theological problems with this pre-Reformation, medieval Catholic devotional classic. But read with discernment, it is helpful in many ways. It made me love Christ more and want to be more like him, and that makes it a book worth reading and re-reading. 

6. Saving Eutychus: How to Preach God's Word and Keep People Awake, Gary Millar and Phil Campbell. This is a refreshing and helpful book on preaching that lives up to its wonderful title! There are many books on preaching that help preachers with theology, exegesis, and exposition. But this book, while refusing to downplay the importance of these things, is particularly helpful on delivery. (And I think I’m preaching a little better now than I was at this time last year.) 

5. The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Discipleship, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne. Like Saving Eutychus, this excellent book was published by our Aussie friends at Matthias Media. It is, hands down, the best manual on discipleship in the local church I have seen. I plan to use it with our church leaders in the coming months and years. 

4. Memoir and Remains of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, edited by Andrew Bonar. I'm pretty sure I've now read every page of this magnificent collection of diaries, sermons, pastoral letters, personal letters, mission reports, poems, communion meditations, and more from this saintly nineteenth century pastor from Scotland. M'Cheyne used to pray, "Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can become" and often counseled people, "For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ." Few volumes in my library have as consistently nourished my soul as this one. I feel sure I'll return to it again and again through the rest of my life.

3. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith. This is a popularly written, more accessible version of Smith’s earlier book, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith argues that we are embodied beings pulled along by our desires, not just thinking things or "brains on a stick." Christian education and spiritual formation, therefore, require something more than a data dump. Information alone will not a genuine disciple make. We must also attend to our hearts, our desires, our habits, and the liturgies of our culture. I will be reflecting on this book for a long time.  

2. The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, John Owen. This was my second time through Owen's soul-searching analysis of spiritual thoughts and affections. Convicting, yet nourishing. 

1. Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, edited by J. T. McNeill. Calvin's Institutes is profound, lyrical, and worshipful -- devotional theology at it's best. I first started the Institutes back in 2001, but didn't finish it. I picked it up again in 2008 or 2009, working through most of Books 2-3. A couple of years ago, I read about half of Book 4. And I've dipped in and out of the Institutes, reading some sections here and there (especially in Books 2-3) multiple times. But in July of this year, I decided to take the Institutes with me for a study leave. I read most of Books 1-3 in July, then took the rest of the year to finish Books 3-4. I'm so glad I did. Easily my favorite book of the year. And I can hardly wait to read it again.

Infinite Grace to Pardon Immeasurable Sin


See the consequences of that sin on all sides, the world is full of them.

Yet, saith Paul, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound,” and he gives us this as a proof of it: “And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification” (Rom. 5:16).

The Lord Jesus came into the world, not alone to put away Adam’s sin, but all the sins which have followed upon it. The second Adam has repaired the desperate ruin of the first, and much more.

By his death upon the cross, our Divine Substitute has put away those myriads of sins, which have been committed by men since the first offence in Eden.

Think of this!

Take the whole aggregate of believers, and let each one disburden his conscience of its load of sin.
      What a mountain!
      Pile it up! Pile it up!
      It rises huge as high Olympus!

Age after age believers come and lay their enormous loads in this place. “The Lord hath made to meet on him the iniquities of us all.”
      What Alps!
      What Himalayas of sin!

If there were only mine and yours, my brother, what mountains of division would our sins make! But the great Christ, the free gift of God to us, when he bare our sins in his own body on the tree, took all those countless sins away.

“Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”!

Here is infinite grace to pardon immeasurable sin!

Truly the “one man’s offence” abounded horribly; but the “one man’s obedience,” the obedience of the Son of God, hath superabounded. As the arch of heaven far exceedeth in its span the whole round globe of the earth, so doth grace much more abound over human sin.

 --C. H. Spurgeon, “Grace Abounding Over Abounding Sin,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 34

Equip Yourself Against Accusation with the Gospel


The genius of Christianity takes the words of Paul 
"who gave himself for our sins" 
as true and efficacious. 


We are not to look upon our sins as insignificant trifles. 
On the other hand, we are not to regard them as so terrible 
that we must despair. 

Learn to believe that Christ was given, 
not for picayune and imaginary transgressions, 
but for mountainous sins; 
not for one or two, 
but for all; 
not for sins that can be discarded, 
but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained. 


Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, 
particularly in the last hour, 
when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. 

Say with confidence: 
"Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. 
If I had no sin I should not need Christ. 
No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. 
The truth is, I am all sin. 
My sins are not imaginary transgressions,
but sins against the first table, 
unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, 
ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, 
misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; 
and sins against the second table, 
dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, 
coveting of another's possessions, etc. 
Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, 
and similar sins 
in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, 
and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God. 
Because my transgressions are multiplied 
and my own efforts at self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, 
therefore Christ the Son of God 
gave Himself into death 
for my sins." 


To believe this is to have eternal life. 
Let us equip ourselves against the accusations of Satan with this and similar passages of Holy Scripture. 


If he says, "Thou shalt be damned," 
you tell him: "No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. 
In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, 
you are cutting your own throat, Satan. 
You are reminding me of God's fatherly goodness toward me, 
that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son 
that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, 
but have everlasting life. 
In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure." 
With such heavenly cunning 
we are to meet the devil's craft 
and put from us the memory of sin."

--Martin Luther, 
Commentary on Galatians

A Firm Foundation in the Weakness of Christ

The Son of God, then, who is Jesus Christ, holds out himself as the object to which our faith ought to be directed, and by means of which it will easily find that on which it can rest; for he is the true Immanuel, who answers us within, as soon as we seek him by faith. It is one of the leading articles of our faith, that our faith ought to be directed to Christ alone, that it may not wander through long windings; and that it ought to be fixed on him, that it may not waver in the midst of temptations. And this is the true proof of faith, when we never suffer ourselves to be torn away from Christ, and from the promises which have been made to us in him . . . . Proud men are ashamed of Christ's humiliation, and, therefore, they fly to God's incomprehensible Divinity. But faith will never reach heaven unless it submit to Christ, who appears to be a low and contemptible God, and will never be firm if it do not seek a foundation in the weakness of Christ.
--John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel of John, John 14:1

Does God Ordain Suffering or Oppose It?

A recent episode of The Gospel Coalition's podcast featured a discussion between John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt about God's goodness in suffering. A tweet from TGC provoked some negative reactions from several high-profile Christian thinkers, including Jefferson Bethke, Brian Zahnd, and Jonathan Merritt. The main perspectives expressed in this debate seem pretty polarized at first glance: either God ordains suffering for his good purposes or God opposes suffering as an enemy invasion in the world he created. 

My guess is that most of those commenting through tweets are actually more nuanced in their theology than either of those simple propositions (both of which, I believe, are biblical) indicates. And the problem with so much of our online theological discourse is that it is hard to do good theology in short sound-bites and 140 character tweets. 

I would say that any discussion of human suffering rightly begins with a two-part recognition. 

1. First, suffering is an alien invasion into God’s good creation that results from human rebellion and sin. 
2. Second, suffering is addressed by our saving God in the cross and empty tomb of Jesus. 

This second reality asserts something remarkable: when God allowed sin to enter this world, even he was affected. It is not only humanity that has suffered as a result of sin. God himself chose to suffer both with us and for us, in order to rescue and redeem the good world he created.  As D. A. Carson thoughtfully writes:

When Christians think seriously about evil and suffering, one of the paramount reasons we are so sure that God is to be trusted is because he sent his Son to suffer cruelly on our behalf. Jesus Christ, the Son who is to be worshiped as God, God’s own agent in creation (John 1:2-3), suffered an excruciatingly odious and ignominious death. The God on whom we rely knows what suffering is all about, not merely in the way that God knows everything, but by experience. [1] 

The ultimate answer to human suffering, then, is in the suffering of God himself through the cross. The letter of Hebrews says that Jesus was “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). God, the eternal one, the source of all life, suffered the taste of death; his plan for bringing many sons to glory was only accomplished by making “the founder of [our] salvation perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10; cf. 5:10). This means Jesus is a high priest who sympathizes with our weaknesses, since “in every respect [he] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. 2:18). Jesus knows our pain. 

Our God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is unique among the religions of the world. He alone has entered into the reality of our suffering. “Jesus of the Scars,” a poem written by Edward Shillito in the wake of World War I, beautifully captures this:

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone....[2]

The writers of Scripture felt the reality of suffering keenly and addressed it often. One of the most profound passages addressing suffering is found in Romans 8. Paul’s words offer an insight that should radically transform our perspective on suffering. Here is one of the keys to understanding how and why God works out his purposes in our lives. In this passage we see that God uses suffering—all suffering, without exception—to accomplish his ultimate purpose and our everlasting good. God uses suffering to conform us to the image of Christ.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom. 8:28-29).

Notice that Paul doesn’t say suffering itself is good. He says all things (including suffering) work together for the good of Christians. The context of this passage makes it especially clear that Paul has suffering in mind, for he refers to “the sufferings of this present time” (v. 18), the created world’s “bondage to decay” (v. 21), our “groaning” for the future redemption of the body (v. 23), and the reality of suffering and persecution for the name of Christ (v. 17, 35-36).

So suffering is not good, but God uses it for good. I find the distinctions made by C. S. Lewis wise and helpful:

Suffering is not good in itself . . . In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish between (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.[3] 

The good promised in Romans 8:28-29 is a “complex good” in which the dark threads of evil and suffering, culminating in the cross, are woven together by God to accomplish his ultimate purpose. He aims to produce a new race of human beings, restored in his divine image, who will live in a new world.

So does God ordain suffering or oppose suffering? Is suffering our enemy or God's gift? The answer is complex. In and of itself, suffering is not good. But God exploits suffering for good, and this is part of his sovereign plan.  


This post is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 11 of my book Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change

Notes

1. D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2nd Edition, 2006) 159.
2. Edward Shillito, “Jesus of the Scars,” quoted in Carson, 170.
3. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1940, 1996, 2001) 110-111.