Someone said, I believe, something to the effect that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living”. And so it is. Self-examination has got to be an ongoing part of our lives, not merely a few moments each week as we notice the bread and wine creeping towards us. As I come up to 50 years old, I can just about start to look back, as well as look forward. In departure from my usual expositional style, I decided to share with you what I understand by spiritual growth. For each life lived in Christ, it will be somewhat different; but the essential processes are the same. The body of believers will ultimately manifest the fullness of Christ, the glory of God. I suggest this happens by each believer coming to reflect some particular part of that glory. One may develop wonderful patience with others’ weaknesses; another may develop faith in prayer for others’ illnesses. Between us, over history, we finally reflect the full body and character of Jesus. And when we’re done, He will come, as He finally sees His reflection here on earth. The temple was laid out, like the tabernacle, as a man’s body (when seen from a bird’s eye view); as if God’s intention was to look down upon His people and see Himself reflected in them. The Lord Jesus looks down upon His people, for all of them live unto Him in some sense, and wishes to see Himself reflected in us.
I once did a Bible School, comparing the lives of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Samson, Job, Paul and Peter. I discerned some common elements in their drive to spiritual maturity. Over their lives, they all display an increasing appreciation of the Name of God; a growing sense of the certainty of their salvation, as well as an ever finer conviction of their own sinfulness; a deeper appreciation of God’s promises and the basic doctrines of the Gospel; a marvel at grace; and an ever deeper Christ / Messiah centredness.
The Way Of The Cross
It was the late, great Jim Broughton who gave me good advice in my teens. One of the few bits of advice I took note of was his recommendation to me to try to imagine the crucifixion of Jesus each time I broke bread, and each time to try to realize some new insight into His sufferings and achievement. I’ve indeed tried to do this, and I commend it. It’s been a factor in my growth. The margins of my Bibles are full of scribbled notes around the chapters relating the crucifixion. It’s midnight in Minsk as I write this. I’m still thinking of the little insight I had last Sunday. It was a reflection on the observations of many that what a man needs most as he dies… is not to face death alone. To have someone with him. The way the Lord sent Mary and John away from Him at the very end is profound in its reflection of His total selflessness, His deep thought for others rather than Himself. It also reflects how He more than any other man faced the ultimate human realities and issues which death exposes. He met them totally alone, the supreme example of human bravery in the face of death. And He faced them fully, with no human cushion or literal or psychological anaesthesia to dilute the awful, crushing reality of it. Remember how He refused the painkiller. And through baptism and life in Him, we are asked to die with Him, to share something of His death, the type and nature of death which He had... in our daily lives. Little wonder we each seem to sense some essential, existential, quintessential… loneliness in our souls. Thus it must be for those who share in His death. I’m grateful to Cindy for a quote from a wise doctor: “What you can really do for a person who is dying, is to die with him”. How inadvertently profound that thought becomes when applied to the death of our Lord, and to us as we imagine ourselves standing by and watching Him there. “What you can really do for a person who is dying, is to die with him”.
The Way Of Personal Failure
Sin, both our own and the sins of others against us, is actually used by God in a wonderful way. Not that this of course justifies sin. But it is a fact that through our experience of the sin-repentance-forgiveness process, we grow hugely. Here we have the answer to those who cannot forgive themselves for past sins. God works out His plan of salvation actually through man’s disobedience rather than his obedience. As Paul puts it again, we are concluded in unbelief, that God may have mercy (Rom. 11:32). It was and is the spirit of Joseph, when he comforted his brothers: “Now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). And again, speaking about the sin of Israel in rejecting Christ: “Their trespass means riches for the [Gentile] world” (Rom. 11:12). Or yet again, think of how Abraham’s lie about Sarah and unfaithfulness to his marriage covenant with her became a source of God’s blessing and the curing of Abimelech’s wife from infertility (Gen. 20:17). The righteousness of God becomes available to us exactly because we have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23,24). If we lie, then through our lie the truth and glory of God is revealed (Rom. 3:7). The light comes into the world- the light of hope of salvation, forgiveness, of God in Christ- but this light reveals to us our verdict of ‘guilty’ (Jn. 3:18,36).
Or consider the curse upon Levi- that the members of this tribe were to be scattered in Israel (Gen. 49:7). However, this resulted in the cities of the Levites being scattered throughout the land, thus providing accessible cities of refuge to all who wished to escape the consequences of sin. Those cities were evidently symbolic of the refuge we have in Christ (Heb. 6:18). Again and again, the curses and consequences of human sin are used by the Father to mediate blessing. God was the ultimate avenger of blood (Gen. 9:5); in setting up a way of escape from the avenger of blood, He surely indicates how He recognizes the rightness of His own principles, and yet sought a way for humanity to not perish because of them. In this we see an exquisite prophecy of His provision in Christ, and of the tension between the justice and grace within God’s character, the tension Hoses spoke of as God’s internal struggle about whether to destroy or redeem Israel when they repeatedly sinned against Him. By all means compare the account of such a case in 2 Sam. 14:7, where it was recognized that God ‘devises means’ to preserve people from the avenger of blood- a reference to the cities of refuge. In all this we see the tension within God's person, as He so earnestly seeks to work through our failure to bring about His glory.
David was aware that God didn't really want sacrifice, or else he would so eagerly have offered it (Ps. 51:16,17). Instead, David perceived that what God wanted in essence was a broken and contrite spirit. The Bathsheba incident was programmatic for David's understanding of God, and his prayers and psalms subsequently can be expected to have constant allusion back to it. We meet the same idea of God not ultimately wanting sacrifice in Ps. 40:6-9: "Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire [but instead] mine ears hast thou opened [Heb. 'digged'- a reference to a servant being permanently committed as a slave to his master]: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then said I, Lo, I come... to do thy will... thy law is within my heart". In Ps. 51:17, David had reasoned that instead of sacrifice, God wanted a heart that was broken and contrite. Here he reflects that instead of sacrifice, God wants a heart that has the law of God within it. This ultimately is the effect of God's law being in our heart- it creates a broken and contrite heart. But how? In the experience of most of us, the law does this through convicting us of our inability to keep the it. And so we see how guilt and grace work so seamlessly together. David's broken heart was a heart which knew he had sinned, sinned irreversibly, and condemned himself. But this, he perceived, was the result of God's law being within his heart. But the words of Ps. 40:6-9 are applied in the New Testament to the Lord's death upon the cross. What's the connection, and what's the lesson? In essence, through David's experience of sin, and the work of God's law upon his heart, he came through that sin to have the very mind of the Lord Jesus as He hung upon the cross, matchless and spotless in His perfection, as the Lamb for sinners slain. Again and again we see the lesson taught- that God works through human sin, in this case, in order to bring us to know the very mind of Christ in His finest hour of glory and spiritual conquest. We must not only let God's word work its way in us; but we need to recognize when dealing with other sinners that God likewise is working with them. He doesn't shrug and walk away from sin; He earnestly seeks to use our experience of it to bring us closer unto Himself.
God’s intention that the king of Israel should personally copy out all the commandments of the Law was so that “his heart be not lifted up above his brethren” (Dt. 17:20)- i.e. reflecting upon the many requirements of the Law would’ve convicted the King of his own failure to have been fully obedient, and therefore his heart would be humbled. And soon after this statement, we are hearing Moses reminding Israel that Messiah, the prophet like unto Moses, was to be raised up (Dt. 18:18). Human failure, and recognition of it, prepares us to accept Christ. To this end, God worked through Israel’s weakness, time and again. He even used it as a path towards His provision of Messiah. God wanted to speak to them directly, but in their weakness they asked that He not do this. Instead of giving up with them, as a Father whose children say they don’t want to hear His voice… instead God goes on to tell Moses: “They have well spoken that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren [a prophecy applied to Christ in the New Testament]… and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Dt. 18:17,18).
I’ve often asked myself how exactly the Mosaic Law led people to Christ. Was it not that they were convicted by it of guilt, and cried out for a Saviour? “The law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: that… grace might reign… unto eternal life by Jesus” (Rom. 5:20,21). This was the purpose of the Law. And thus Paul quotes David’s rejoicing in the righteousness imputed to him when he had sinned and had no works left to do- and changes the pronoun from “he” to “they” (Rom. 4:6-8). David’s personal experience became typical of that of each of us. It was through the experience of that wretched and hopeless position that David and all believers come to know the true ‘blessedness’ of imputed righteousness and sin forgiven by grace. The suffering and groaning of which Paul speaks in Rom. 8:17, 22-26 is in my view a reference to the ‘groaning’ he has just been making about his inability to keep the Mosaic Law. Our helplessness to be obedient, our frustration with ourselves, is a groaning against sin which is actually a groaning in harmony with that of the Spirit of the Lord Jesus, who makes intercession for us with the same groanings right now (Rom. 8:26). Indeed, those groanings are those spoken of in Heb. 5:7 as the groanings of strong crying and tears which the Lord made in His final passion. In this sense, the Spirit, the Lord the Spirit, bears witness with our spirit / mind, that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). This clinches all I am trying to say. Our inability to keep the Law of God leads to a groaning against sin and because of sin, which puts us into a unity with the Lord Jesus as our Heavenly intercessor in the court of Heaven. But that wondrous realization of grace which is expressed so finely in Romans 8 would just be impossible were it not for the conviction of sin which there is through our experience of our inability to keep the Law of God. Our failure and groaning because of it becomes in the end the very witness that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). God thereby makes sin His servant, in that the experience of it glorifies Him.
And then there’s intellectual failure. The way we misunderstood Scripture, had wrong ideas, which over the years of prayerful Bible study are being corrected. But my observation is that what I’m calling intellectual failure- e.g. a Bible reader believing in the immortality of the soul- usually has a moral reason behind it, subconsciously. We so often wilfully read Scripture the way we secretly want to understand it, willing ourselves to the same conclusions as our fathers. Prayer before daily Bible reading is essential; but it must be genuine prayer, an utterly sincere desire to be taught the way of God whatever this requires us to jettison.
The Way Of Preaching
The experience of preaching leads to our growth. Paul Tournier in The Meaning Of Persons perceptively comments: “We become fully conscious only of what we are able to express to someone else. We may already have had a certain intuition about it, but it must remain vague so long as it is unformulated”. This is why anyone involved in preaching, public speaking, writing or personal explanation of the Gospel to someone else will know that they have gained so much from having to state in so many words what they already ‘know’. And in the course of making the expression, our own understanding is deepened, our personal consciousness of what we believe is strengthened, and thereby our potential for a real faith is enhanced. Tournier’s observation is validated by considering the record of the healed blind man in Jn. 9. Initially he says that he doesn’t know whether or not Jesus is a sinner, all he knows is that Jesus healed him. But the Jews force him to testify further, and in the course of his witness, the man explains to them that God doesn’t hear sinners, and so for Jesus to have asked God for his healing and been heard…surely proved that Jesus wasn’t a sinner. He was sinless. The man was as it were thinking out loud, coming to conclusions himself, as he made his bold witness (Jn. 9:31,33).
The parable of the sower leaves us begging the question: ‘So how can we be good ground?’. Mark’s record goes straight on to record that the Lord right then said that a candle is lit so as to publicly give light and not to be hidden. He is speaking of how our conversion is in order to witness to others. But He says this in the context of being good ground. To respond to the word ourselves, our light must be spreading to all. The only way for the candle of our faith to burn is for it to be out in the open air. Hidden under the bucket of embarrassment or shyness or an inconsistent life, it will go out. We will lose our faith if we don’t in some sense witness to it. Witnessing is in that sense for our benefit. When the disciples ask how ever they can accomplish the standards which the Lord set them, He replied by saying that a city set on a hill cannot be hid (Mt. 5:14). He meant that the open exhibition of the Truth by us will help us in the life of personal obedience to Him.
Discussing Scripture with others has been invaluable in my own experience of Bible study. Particularly is it valuable to discuss with Christians and even non-believers who come from a totally different culture from your own. Thus discussion of the parables of the lost in Lk. 15 with Middle Eastern peasants raises a number of issues which few Western expositors have hit on- e.g. the ways in which the elder son's refusal to attend the banquet was such an insult to the father, the way an older man never runs in public and humiliates himself by doing so. The problem is, we come to Scripture through the lenses of our own culture and background. Leslie Newbigin, a lifetime missionary in India, commented: "We do not see the lenses of our spectacles; we see through them, and it is another who has to say to us, "Friend, you need a new pair of spectacles""(1). The Lord spoke in one Gospel record of taking heed what we hear; but in another, of taking care how we hear. How we hear, our worldviews, our approach to knowledge, is in effect what we end up hearing.
Newbigin had something of my own experience of the value of discussing Scripture with people from other backgrounds; he speaks of the need of "the witness of those who read the Bible with minds shaped by other cultures"(2). This is not only true in a world-culture sense; but it is helpful to discuss with all manner of folk. Even though we may not agree with them, an hour spent in discussing Revelation with a JW, or Paul with a radical Christian feminist who thinks Jesus is a woman... all this sows stimulation in our subsequent reflections.
More than anything, preaching has taught me the immense value of the human person as an individual. The Lord’s parable of the strange shepherd who leaves the 99 and gives his all for the one- the foolish one, the lost one, the antisocial one- is programmatic for me. The need is the call. If one person needs fellowship, forgiveness, love, the teaching of the Gospel, baptism, encouragement, re-fellowship, support, money, whatever… the value of them as an individual must be paramount. No matter what it costs us, how far we have to travel [in whatever sense], how much ‘trouble’ we get into, how foolish we look, how out on a limb we put ourselves. The value and meaning of the individual person was paramount in the Lord’s teaching and example, and it must be in our worldviews too.
John Thomas wrote at the end of his life about his regret for the „theological gladiatorship” of his earlier years. Likewise looking back, I see that initially, I understood 'preaching' as merely debating and combating theological ideas opposed to my own- with no significance placed upon the value of the person with whom I was in discussion. It’s not that I now think the doctrines of our faith are any less important now than I did then. Actually, the opposite. It’s just that that person on the other side of the fence to you has, just like you, their inner traumas and struggles, their secret conflicts and dramas... and yet all this becomes hidden behind the facade of doctrinal debate and argument. I’ve learnt that it is to the person we must appeal if we are to win them for Christ, or win them closer to Him as we seek. If we are to convert and help others to Jesus, rather than to ourselves, we need to find "another mode of relationship" than mere intellectual argument. Such argument alone will not convert or persuade towards the cause of Christ. And yet sadly so much of our collective preaching effort has been taken up with exactly this kind of fruitless debate. Doctrinal argument tends to divide; whereas it is the common areas of experience which tend to unite. And so a woman reaching out to other women, perhaps other young mothers, will be a far more likely cause of conversion than knocking on the doors and engaging all and sundry in doctrinal debate. But that woman, if she is to bring about an authentic conversion, must all the same convert her fellow-woman to something. And she likely will have to talk around all the host of misunderstandings and wrong ideas which her friend has been exposed to in this sadly confused and lost world.
The Way Of Biblical Study
Daily Bible reading from the Bible Companion has been a blessing to me. And pray, fervently and intensely, to really understand and respond; that the word may become flesh in us, as it was in the Lord. I can’t recommend these habits strongly enough. Through all the ups and downs, failure and success, sin and righteousness, the light and the black, and all the shades of grey, this is a habit I have rigidly kept up. And of course, serious prayer. I am grateful, and maybe in a literal sense it will be ‘eternally grateful’, that my dear mother taught me to pray on my knees as a little boy. Little could she have imagined what she was doing for me by setting me up in that way from which I would not depart. How in sin, in danger of my life, under arrest by Moslem fanatics, in rejection, in adulation, alone in so many lonely hotel rooms in the service of the Gospel... serious prayer on my knees was my salvation. Who am I to really give advice... but, all I can say is: pray to God, and hear His voice in His word, daily, seriously, intently. And develop habits that enable this. Set your alarm clock just 10 minutes earlier, or whatever that’s required.
There’s a certain mutuality between our Bible reading, and our prayer life. As we speak with God in prayer, so He speaks with us through His word. Feeling that synthesis between Bible reading and prayer is, to my mind, a significant indicator of spiritual growth. ‘Praying’ through running off a list of requests, or mouthing the same old phrases... this won’t achieve the synthesis, the praxis, of which I speak. As we hear God’s word, His voice, so our words of prayer will respond to that appropriately.
The Way Of Grace
That salvation is indeed a pure gift from God, unattainable by our own efforts, becomes more and more clear and awesome to me. But His grace works out in other ways, apart from in our salvation. So many times I have been saved from death or serious injury by grace. It is grace that we have what health we have, life itself. Grace that we were born into a situation whereby in the end we heard the Gospel. It was God’s grace that gave me wonderful parents and the finest wife, that preserved me in ways great and small time and again. And you must surely know the same sense of grace.
Realizing that we are in the grace of God, justified by Him through our being in Christ, leads us to a far greater and happier acceptance of ourselves as persons. So many people are unhappy with themselves. It’s why we look in mirrors in a certain way when nobody else is watching; why we’re so concerned to see how we turned out in a photograph. Increasingly, this graceless world can’t accept itself. People aren’t happy or acceptant of their age [they want to look and be younger or older], their body, their family situation, even their gender and their own basic personality. I found that when I truly accepted my salvation by grace, when the wonder of who I am in God’s sight, as a man in Christ, really dawned on me… I became far happier with myself, far more acceptant. Now of course in another sense, we are called to radical transformation, to change, to rise above the narrow limits of our own backgrounds. This is indeed the call of Christ. But I refer to our acceptance of who we are, and the situations we are in, as basic human beings.
And so our character changes, our personality is transformed, where and
as and when these various 'ways' have their meeting in us- the way of grace,
the way of the cross, the way of personal failure, the way of Bible study,
the way of preaching. As we progress along the path, it seems to me that our
awareness of our responsibility to God in all these matters increases. Emil
Brunner’s thesis throughout his classic study Man In Revolt is that
“responsibility is the key to personality”. Grasping that we are responsible
to God will radically affect our personality. Self discipline, self
examination, actions governed by higher principles and the knowledge of
judgment… all these things arise from grasping that we are responsible to
God. The doctrine of responsibility to God and His judgment affects
personality in practice- radically so.
SPIRITUAL GROWTH: Part 2. Indicators Of Spiritual Growth
Spiritual growth is perhaps something we can only get to grips with by observing it in practice. I want to discuss a few indicators of spiritual growth which in my judgment are the most significant in practice.
No Fear Of Others’ Judgment
We all talk to ourselves. There’s a steady stream of self-talk going on within us, whether or not we quietly mouth the words to ourselves at times. Some people have a stream of self-talk going on that denigrates their self-worth day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Others have thoughts of anger and bad imaginations against the evil which they imagine others are doing. Yet others have thoughts of utter vanity, of grandeur, of lust, of various fantasies...and these all influence our words, actions and ambitions in the very end. From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. So “guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Prov. 4:23). This is why we are told to speak the truth in our hearts. David definitely has in mind here our self-talk. Our self-talk has a high likelihood of being untrue, fantasy, imagination. Be aware, keenly aware, of the private conversations you’re having with yourself. Ensure that all you are saying to yourself, even if it’s not about spiritual things, is at least truthful. This is where this great theme of truth starts and ends. Ideally, our self-talk should be of Jesus, of the Father, of the things of His Kingdom. Of anything that is just, true, of good report... Yet our self-talk is closely linked to what Scripture would call the devil- the constant fountain of wrong suggestions and unspiritual perspectives that seem to bubble up so constantly within us. The devil- the Biblical one- is “the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). And untruthfulness seems to begin within our own self-talk. I would even go so far as to almost define the devil as our own self-talk. And it’s likened to a roaring, dangerous lion; a cunning snake. And it’s there within each of us. The control of self-talk is vital. And the Biblical guidance is to make sure it is truthful; for lack of truthfulness is the root of all sin. Sin is normally committed by believers not as an act of conscious rebellion, but rather through a complex process of self-justification; which on repentance we recognize was the mere sophistry of our own self-talk. This is why truthfulness is the epitome of the spiritual life. To deny ever being untruthful is to deny ever sinning. We all have this problem. It’s why the assertion of Jesus that He was “the truth” was tantamount, in the context, to saying that He was sinless. Only thus is He thereby the way to eternal life.
There are Biblical examples of refusing to take guilt when others feel that it should be taken. Recall how the Lord’s own parents blamed Him for ‘making them anxious’ by ‘irresponsibly’ remaining behind in the temple. The Lord refused to take any guilt, didn’t apologize, and even gently rebuked them (Lk. 2:42-51). In similar vein, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Even if I made you sorry with a letter, I do not regret it” (2 Cor. 7:8). He would not take guilt for their being upset with him. Likewise Absalom comforted his raped sister not to ‘take it to heart’, not to feel guilty about it, as it seems she was feeling that way, taking false guilt upon her (2 Sam. 13:20).
False guilt is played upon by the ever greater fear of the spirit of judgment which progressively fills our world. Novels, movies, soap operas… all increasingly deal with this theme- judging who is guilty, to what extent, in what way, what judgment is necessary or warranted. Everyone feels under constant criticism, innocent words are increasingly misread, litigation opened against truly unintentional slips of wording or action. In one form or another, earth’s population is living in fear of judgment. Recriminations and reproach fly around our own community. None of us are indifferent to it all, all are hurt by the critical email, SMS, word, look or unspoken opinion of others. It leads to the fear between parents and children, wives and husbands, pastors and flock, which is breaking down society and our own community. This fear of criticism / judgment kills spontaneity, it precludes formulating independent thought and truly original ideas and programmes of action; it is the fear of this, rather than of God’s judgment, which lead people to leave their talent buried in the earth. And in the end, it leads to an empty conformism to what is perceived to be the ‘safe’ position, a bourgeois, spiritually middle class formalism. Spiritual maturity involves, to me at least, overcoming this tendency to live in fear of others’ judgment, with all the taking of false guilt which this creates.
To feel otherwise involves overlooking a fundamental of our faith- that there truly is one judge. Hence Paul could say to his critics within the brotherhood that it mattered so little to him how he was judged by them, for he had only One who would judge him (1 Cor. 4:3). Indeed, Paul’s thought here is building on what he had earlier reasoned in 1 Cor. 2:15, that the spiritual man “himself is judged of no man”. There was only One judge, and the believer is now not condemned if he is in Christ (Rom. 8:1). He that truly believes in Christ is not condemned, but has passed from death to life (Jn. 3:18; 5:24). So however men may claim to judge and condemn us, the ultimate truth is that no man can judge / condemn us, and we who are spiritual should live life like that, not fearing the pathetic judgments of men, knowing that effectively we are not being judged by them. How radically different is Paul’s attitude to so many of us. The fear of criticism and human judgment leads us to respond as animals do to fear- the instinct of self-defence and self-preservation is aroused. We defend ourselves as we would against hunger or impending death. Yet here the radical implications of grace burst through. We are not our best defence. We have an advocate who is also the judge, the almighty Lord Jesus; we have a preserver and saviour, the same omnipotent Lord, so that we need not and must not trust in ourselves. By not trusting in this grace of salvation, we end up desperately trusting ourselves for justification and preservation and salvation, becoming ever more guilty at our abysmal and pathetic failures to save and defend ourselves.
Further, when a man is under accusation, his conscience usually dies. He is so bent on self-defence and seeking his own innocence and liberation from accusation. And we see this in so many around us. But for us, we have been delivered from accusation, judged innocent, granted the all powerful and all authoritative heavenly advocate. Rom. 8:33 states that there is now nobody who can accuse us, because none less than God Himself, the judge of all, is our justifier in Christ! And so whatever is said about us, don’t let this register with us as if it is God accusing us. Not for us the addiction of internet chat groups, wanting to know what is said about us or feeling defensive under accusation. For all our sins, truly or falsely accused of, God is our justifier, and not ourselves. And thus our consciences can still blossom when under man’s false accusation, genuinely aware of our failures for what they are, not being made to feel more guilty than we should, or to take false guilt. This is all a wonderful and awesome outworking of God’s plan of salvation by grace.
Freedom From Fear
The Bible has so much to say about death, depicting us as having a “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). And yet humanity generally doesn’t want to seriously consider death. Yet death is the moment of final truth, which makes all men and women ultimately equal, destroying all the categories into which we place people during our or their lives. If we regularly read and accept the Bible’s message, death, with all its intensity and revelation of truth and the ultimate nature of human issues, is something which is constantly before us, something we realistically face and know, not only in sickness or at funerals. And the realness, the intensity, the truth… which comes from this will be apparent in our lives.
And yet the fear of death grips our society more than we like to admit. A psychologist described the huge “number of people who dream that they are locked in, that everywhere they come up against iron-bound and padlocked doors, that they absolutely must escape, and yet there is no way out”. This is the state of the nation, this is how we naturally are, this is the audience to which we preach. And we preach a freedom from that fear. Because the Lord Jesus was of our human nature- and here perhaps more than anywhere else we see the crucial practical importance of true doctrine- we are freed from the ranks of all those who through fear of death live their lives in bondage (Heb. 2:15). For He died for us, as our representative. How true are those inspired words. “To release them who through fear / phobos of death were all their living-time subject to slavery” (Gk.). Nearly all the great psychologists concluded that the mystery of death obsesses humanity; and in the last analysis, all anxiety is reduced to anxiety about death. You can see it for yourself, in how death, or real, deep discussion of it, is a taboo subject; how people will make jokes about it in reflection of their fear of seriously discussing it. People, even doctors and psychologists, don’t quite know what to really say to the dying. There can be floods of stories and chit-chat… all carefully avoiding any possible allusion to death. This fear of death, in which the unredeemed billions of humanity have been in bondage, explains the fear of old age, the unwillingness to accept our age for what it is, our bodies for how and what they are, or are becoming. I’m not saying of course that the emotion of fear or anxiety is totally removed from our lives by faith. The Lord Jesus in Gethsemane is proof enough that these emotions are an integral part of being human, and it’s no sin to have them. I’m talking of fear in it’s destructive sense, the fear of death which is rooted in a lack of hope. The person who is freed from this has grown spiritually.
Certainty Of Salvation By Grace
Lk. 12:32 teaches that we should not fear or worry about our lack of material things, because God is eager to give us His Kingdom. The certainty of salvation which we may have ought to mean that worry about all human things of this life becomes irrelevant. The wonderful certainty of salvation and freedom from condemnation is brought out by the wonderful figure of Rom. 8:33,34. The person bringing the complaint of sin against us is God alone- for there is no personal devil to do so. And the judge who can alone condemn us is the Lord Jesus alone. And yet we find the one ‘brings the charge’ instead being the very one who justifies us, or as the Greek means, renders us guiltless. The one who brings the charge becomes this strange judge who is so eager to declare us guiltless. And the judge who can alone condemn, or render guilty, is the very one who makes intercession to the judge for us- and moreover, the One who died for us, so passionate is His love. The logic is breathtaking, literally so. The figures are taken from an earthly courtroom, but the roles are mixed. Truly “if God be for us [another courtroom analogy], who can be against us” (8:31). This advocate / intercessor is matchless. With Him on our side, ‘for us’, we cannot possibly be condemned. Whatever is ‘against us’- our sins- cannot now be against us, in the face of this mighty advocate. Let’s face it, the thing we fear more than death is our sin which is ‘against us’. But the assurance is clear, for those who will believe it. With an attorney for the defence such as we have, who is also our passionate judge so desperate to justify us- even they cannot stand ‘against us’. Rom. 8:38,39 says that neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God. In what sense could life separate us from God's love? Surely only in the sense of sins committed in human life. Yet even these cannot separate us from the love of God which is so ready and eager to forgive us. This is the extent of grace; that not even sin, which on one hand separates from God, can actually separate us from the love of God in Christ. We are often plagued by a desire to separate out the things for which we are justly suffering, and things in which we are innocent victims. We struggle over whether our cancer or her depression is our fault, or whether we only got into unhealthy behaviours as a result of others' stressing us... etc. This struggle to understand the balance between personal guilt and being a victim of circumstance or other people makes it hard for some people to free themselves from guilt. Seeking to understand is especially acute when we face death, suffering, tragedy, or experience broken relationships. How much was I to blame? In how much was I merely a victim? My determined conclusion is that it is impossible, at least by any intellectual process, to separate out that suffering for which we are personally guilty, and that suffering which we are merely victims of. The cross of Jesus was not only to remove personal guilt through forgiveness; all our human sufferings and sicknesses were laid upon Him there. Our burdens, both of our own guilt and those which are laid upon us by life or other people, are and were carried by Him who is our total saviour.
The final indicator of spiritual growth is what I would call ‘acceptance’. Acceptance of our salvation, of who we are as persons, acceptance that we are sinners, acceptance of everything around us that cannot be changed until the Kingdom comes. Acceptance, in the end, of grace; an acceptance that merges into faith, faith in its full and final sense as we soberly contemplate our death, judgment to come, and the awesome prospect of utter infinity shared with the Father and Son.
(1) Leslie Newbigin, A Word In Season (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) p. 192
(2) Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel In A Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) pp. 196,197.