Category Archives: Growth in godliness
No two men have better instructed me on the way I lead and care for my wife than Steve Shank and C.J. Mahaney. Both are leaders within Sovereign Grace Ministries. After reflecting on a local conference last winter I wrote about how Steve helped me understand the connection between the Cross and headship (see this post).
So when I heard that Steve Shank interviewed C.J. Mahaney on the topic of biblical masculinity I knew it was a message I needed to prioritize on my list of listening.
Taken from The Pursuit conference, a 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries Regional Conference in Arizona, the discussion covers the understanding and practice of biblical manhood for young men, husbands, and fathers. The interview concludes with a helpful segment on the importance of men humbly welcoming observations from others.
The transcript follows (and you can download a PDF version here).
The Pursuit: Every Man’s Call to Biblical Masculinity
November 14, 2007
Steve Shank: Interview contexts provide fruitful times of interacting with C.J. to tap into his experience and wisdom. Informal questions allow him to ramble through his experiences, memories, things he has observed, seen, and learned. In fact, many of those who have attended our Pastors College would say one of their highlights of their year at the Pastors College is when they get to sit with C.J. and throw questions at him. These interviews open a wide range of rabbit trails of wisdom and insight and personal life.
I’m going to shoot some questions at C.J. geared towards the conference theme of manhood. This will allow him to share his life with us, his experience as a father, and as a leader. If things open up and we head down other trails we’ll allow that to happen as well. But this is our attempt to create a context where informally we can benefit from C.J. on a more personal level.
Thank you for being willing to do this. I’ve got a couple questions to throw at you.
C.J. Mahaney: I’m honored to be asked, although my preference would be to interview you. Steve, you are on the short list of finest fathers and husbands I know.
SS: We’ve already acknowledged this segment of the conference early on, but we have a couple hundred young men here between the ages of 14-19. You know the culture that is after them, trying to persuade them, and squeeze them into its mold. Yet here they are hearing biblical truth about what it means to be a godly man. What would you say to that age group when they face peer pressure, being cool, and all the stuff out there? Speak to that young group. What does it mean to be a young man in-the-making?
CJ: The first thing I would say to each of those young men is how grateful I am that they are here. What a unique joy I derive from the transfer of the gospel to the next generation. If this family of churches was exclusively or primarily populated by those my age I would be very disappointed. I’m grateful for all those my age who do populate our churches and have endured over the years. But I derive a unique joy from the next generation. You bring this aging man joy. Thank you!
I think what I would say to a young man, is that there are categories he needs to familiarize himself with from Scripture. Two would be categories revealed particularly in Proverbs – the wise and the foolish. And I would want any young man (and this has broader application for all of us, but particularly for a young man) to familiarize himself with those two categories.
Those are the only two categories that exist. There are no other categories from God’s perspective. One either identifies with the wise or the foolish. Proverbs is a wealth of wisdom given by God as a gift from God to that age group in particular — to protect them from walking with fools, from being a fool, and from experiencing the consequences of being a fool.
Those who say that wisdom is the fruit of experience haven’t read Proverbs. There is wisdom there that will protect us from the experience of being a fool or emulating the example of a fool. So I would want to impress those categories and familiarize themselves with the numerous and detailed descriptions of the wise son, the wise man, the foolish son, the foolish man.
And I would want those categories to inform that young man and to protect him from sin and to provoke that young man to want to identify with the wise. I would want that young man to be protected from being numbered among the fools.
Proverbs describes a fool as someone who doesn’t acknowledge the relationship between character, conduct, and consequences. God says of that individual – you are a fool.
Often in Proverbs the father is informing the son, “in the end,” a little phrase that appears throughout Proverbs. He is trying to draw his son’s attention to the consequences of sin. Sin in its initial stages appears attractive and can even be pleasurable to some degree. The wise father is drawing the attention of the son to what takes place as a fruit of sin and in the end trying to help establish that relationship between character, conduct and consequence. And then protect the son so the son instead pursues wisdom.
I would also say to that young man, when Proverbs says “the companion of fools will suffer harm,” you will not prove to be an exception to that (Proverbs 13:20). A wise son, a wise man, hangs out with wise men and therefore becomes wise. Proverbs warns us (as an expression of God’s kindness), “the companion of fools will suffer harm.” Now that harm is not always immediately obvious to a fool because often that harm begins in the form of a conscience that goes from sensitive to seared. So that harm isn’t always evident in consequences that are obvious to all. But be assured, the companion of fools will suffer harm.
And I would say to all of us fathers that we must understand that this category of “companion” is broader than just the individuals our children hang out with. Television is a companion. The Internet is a companion. The iPod is a companion. These are all means of transferring foolishness to one’s heart and therefore we need to help equip our sons and daughters with these two categories to protect them from being numbered among the fools and experiencing the consequences of fools and to, instead, be numbered among those who are wise and to taste the sweet fruit of wisdom.
SS: Elaborate on that a little bit for the fathers. As they leave the conference they want to make sure that what has been instructed is imparted and worked out in their son’s lives over the next couple of years. What encouragement would you give to the fathers? Where should they begin? How can they be sure their sons really get what the conference was all about, manhood in particular?
CJ: I would obtain Derek Kidner’s book, Proverbs: An introduction and commentary (IVP: 1981). It is very short. He has a series of studies prior to the formal beginning of the commentary that are simply outstanding. There is a section on the “wise” and the “fool.” That’s one study I would encourage every father to transfer to his child.
And mandatory reading should be Ed Welch’s, When People Are Big and God Is Small (P&R: 1997). You want your child to also have this category of “the fear of man.” As I look back how I wish early in life my father had transferred that category in particular to my soul. For I was a slave to the fear of man. I lived for the acceptance and approval of others. I was governed daily by a craving for that acceptance and approval. And so that book should be mandatory reading.
And for fathers I would say (because I have studied this book with my son Chad) you will have no problem identifying with the content of that book. There is no sin my son is presently experiencing or being tempted by, that I cannot relate and identify. So as we have walked through parts of Ed Welch’s book, my illustrations are different, but the essence of my sin is no different. I think when we identify our sin before our children and with our children, it creates a trust in their heart to receive teaching from someone who is humbling themselves rather that someone who is self-righteously seeking to impose or transfer teaching upon them.
Those would be two mandatory studies. I would also think every young man or woman should study what it means to honor their father and mother from Exodus as well as Ephesians. That would be another priority.
Obviously, most importantly, never lose sight of the Cross! In everything that is what I am trying to transfer to my three daughters and son. The Cross is preeminent.
SS: You have a teenage son now. You are training him, and doing a great job at training him. When you think of masculine traits the way God has ordained for him, or skills, or however you want to categorize them, what are you trying to build into him to be a godly masculine man?
CJ: What immediately comes to mind is that I’m trying to build into him an appreciation for, and cultivation of, humility and servanthood. I want that to define true masculinity for him. I believe this is true greatness in the eyes of God. This is not true greatness in the eyes of this world and therefore there is much discussion about what the world honors and celebrates, and what God honors and celebrates, and what I as a father honor and celebrate.
For example, Chad just finished soccer season. My emphasis with him in preparation before a game, my observation of Chad during a game, my evaluation of Chad after a game is (I hope) theologically informed. My accent is not on skill. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. I obviously believe there is a place for the development of skill. But my accent is upon character. Therefore the goals scored by my son are not the category that is preeminent in either my preparation, observation or evaluation. You will not find me assigning undue importance or celebrating goals scored and leaving the impression this is preeminent.
Actually, the highlight for me this year came in their semi-final game when I guess one of the referees did not show up and the particular young man who was assigned to mark [guard] Chad was twice his size! He did mark Chad. He actually mugged Chad! And because the referee was following the action he wasn’t always able to perceive it. Chad ended up bloody mouth, bloody nose, and a number of other things happened in the game. But Chad never retaliated. Actually we celebrated that on the way home. His blood was on his shirt. I said, “This is great, son! You bring your dad joy. There is a tear in your dad’s eye. That’s outstanding. Blood on your jersey! Blood in your mouth! Blood in your nose!” During the game I had a parent approach me about whether I was going to intervene at some point. Even other parents wanted to intervene.
I told Chad the way he demonstrated self-control is an evidence of God’s grace in his life. And that brings your dad more joy than any victory or any goal.
As a forward, if Chad scores a goal, the celebration is not about his scoring a goal. It’s about expressing appreciation for his team, those who play defense (who normally are not appreciated) and those who, through their passing, made it possible for him to be positioned. So we are going to do what I call a “divine reversal.” In our culture it would be the individual who scored that attention would be directed. By God’s grace I want to reverse that process and honor those who made it possible for him to do that. If Chad knocks someone down and picks them up, that he did not complain about any call by the referee, that’s what I’ll celebrate afterwards. After the game these are what I want to draw attention to and celebrate.
That kind of discernment we want to be imparting as we watch sports. Our kids are always studying us. If you are watching the football team of your choice, the world, culture, and announcers are not theologically informed and will not be drawing attention to these things.
For example, let’s say a particular receiver for the Dallas Cowboys (to choose some random player) or a particular special team player makes a tackle. Whenever there is some expression of self-glorification (this would apply to the Redskins as well), we want to humbly criticize that and not identify with it. And whenever there is an expression of humility, we want to draw our child’s attention to that. So many of these moments are teaching moments, and if we are not poised and prepared and theologically informed, countless teaching moments will pass that could have been seized to make a difference in the lives of our children.
SS: You’ve been married 33 years. You’re now 54 years old. What are you still doing to make sure you are growing as a man?
CJ: I think growing as a man begins by cultivating conviction from Scripture about this call, my role and responsibilities. And one cannot assume that conviction, it must be cultivated in an ongoing way. This role and responsibility to lead, to protect, to provide – must be cultivated by immersing oneself with excellent supplemental materials. Because if one is not in-formed theologically, one will be con-formed to sin and the culture. This is a category I seek to maintain as part of my spiritual diet.
From conviction comes practice. So if you show me someone who is deficient in practice, I’m not going to try and serve them by drawing first attention to deficiencies in practice or ways in which they can grow in practice. I believe practice is important, but practice proceeds from conviction, and therefore I want to address conviction.
I think there are too many men who have not been sufficiently taught about their role and responsibility and it’s all too easy to teach practice prior to establishing these convictions. So that’s what I seek to do.
I seek to interrupt my week either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning with a simple practice to think about my role as a husband and father. That’s the call of God on my life.
Lord willing, God is placing before me another week as a gift. I cannot assume that week, but I need to plan as if by God’s grace that week will be given to me as a gift. I want to live each day receiving each day as a gift. I know at the end of my life I will be accountable for these roles and therefore I want to live today in light of my death and the day of my judgment. I want to work back from that day to this day, and I want to do all I can today and this week to make a difference in the lives of those I love the most — hoping that in some small ways as I, by the grace of God as I serve and lead them, will make a difference in their lives both in the present and when I am no longer present.
So I seek to establish these roles at the outset of the week as priorities. If I don’t, I know going into the week the urgent will overtake me. The legitimate demands of others will intrude. So if I’m not prepared through planning, I will conform to the urgent.
SS: What do you try to accomplish and think through as you look to the week ahead?
CJ: First and foremost, a relationship with, and romance of, my wife. I’m not commending this exact practice to you. You need to custom-design a practice for yourself. But you need some practice. If I don’t interrupt my week, if I don’t create some rhythm where I withdraw from other responsibilities to reflect upon my role and responsibility as a husband and father, I will be governed by the urgent and governed by circumstances. My practice, which is a half-hour and sometimes longer, helps me to reflect upon what is important as informed and defined by God’s Word so I can avoid being a slave to the urgent this week.
And it begins with my relationship with Carolyn. I am convinced that my wife’s task is more important and more difficult than mine. When I ask people to pray for me I ask people to pray for Carolyn more. She has the more challenging job. I’m going off to some place where I’m going to be the object of encouragement by all kinds of people and it can hardly be called ‘work’ (and certainly should never be called ‘sacrifice’).
Monday at some point in the morning I will be at a Starbucks. After having devotions and reading the sports pages, I will say “What can I do to serve Carolyn this week?” I will already know something of her schedule and responsibilities and therefore I want to build my week around certain ways I can serve her. And then I try to build into every week certain ways I can surprise her. And then that extends to Chad as well. How can I serve, lead, continue to develop my relationship, and teach him? And then how can I surprise him?
Those two categories would form plans and practices that then hopefully get transferred to the schedule. It’s not enough to scribble on a piece of paper at Starbucks, if I don’t transfer those to the schedule. It’s the transfer that makes all the difference. This does not work flawlessly every week but it has served me big-time and made all the difference.
There are so many events during a week that if you, say, entered my life a particular moment I would say, “The origin of this moment was my time of planning.” Certainly, I have spontaneous stuff that happens. But most of what happens to me has some point of origin in the past and because there has been planning that’s informed by my roles as husband and father. It has made all the difference in the execution in my life.
SS: You make that point in your marriage material in different contexts. You’ve been a great example to a lot of people in that. I know for me personally, though I don’t feel I’m as faithful or proficient as you are. It certainly does not seem possible to make a memory, to invest, to bless, to lead, to serve, to be connected to my wife’s world, and to do that consistently without planning. So it doesn’t have to be a huge chunk of time but something where you are actually proactive, intentional, and thinking along those lines. That is a way to exercise godly manhood — initiative, leadership, responsibility, faithfulness, and really fulfilling your role as the head of your home and the head of your wife. C.J. you have supplied an exceptional example in that.
CJ: Can I add one thing to that? If we look at how we view our wives and children, they don’t exist to serve us. We exist to serve and lead them. That will make all the difference in our attitude toward them and in our desire to plan. Steve, you are one of the finest examples of this I know. If I come home and I (all too many times) view my home as a refuge of my relaxation rather than a context to serve, then I will not fulfill my role and responsibility as a man. So all of these references are theologically informed and they precede practice and they make all the difference in practice.
I have one more recommendation. You must study your wife and children in order to effectively determine how you can serve your wife and children. So if I gave you illustrations of things I’m doing to serve and surprise Carolyn and serve and surprise Chad, it would not necessarily be transferable to everyone here because they are the fruit of studying Carolyn and studying Chad. And I would say when I’m not studying them in order to serve them it normally means I’m being selfish.
SS: Some people could have the idea that to serve your wife in the way you’re describing is contradictory to headship. But actually it’s an expression of your headship – an expression of Christ-like laying down of your life like Christ loved the Church and manifesting that headship (Eph. 5:25). You’re not abrogating leadership, abrogating authority, abrogating responsibility and you’re still the head of your home. But it’s expressed as a way that reflects Christ.
CJ: Apart from humility and servanthood it isn’t biblical leadership. And my leadership will not be effective, my initiative will not be effective, my direction will not be effective, my decision-making will not be effective if there is not some level of the presence of humility and servanthood in my heart.
SS: Let me ask you about another category. This is totally different from what we’ve been talking so far. A lot of growth that we experience is from the brotherhood, from men in our lives, accountability, relationships and people that know us. What do you do to make sure you have men in your life who know you, that you are benefiting from their wisdom, accountability, care, and insight? What counsel would you give us as we go back to our churches to make certain we have people who really know us and are helping us in our journey together in manhood.
CJ: Great question. I am presently in a care group for which I am indebted to these men. I’m grateful to God beyond words for these men. After my wife, it is this group of men that has responsibility to care for my soul, to identify evidences of grace in my life, and (where and when necessary) to provide correction.
SS: It’s a care group for couples though?
CJ: Yes. But our pattern of meeting is to meet separately as men as well as together for couples in a given month. So there is a context where we are together just as men and another context where we are together just as couples and another context where the women are together just as the ladies.
This is an invaluable means of sanctification. Again this is practice is the fruit of being convinced theologically of the importance of relationships as a means of grace and growth. So if you haven’t been convinced yet from Scripture then you won’t eagerly pursue this, and you will not be inviting the observation of others.
Even to be casually familiar with the doctrine of sin, we should be convinced that we are deceived by our sin. To some degree everyone of us has been – even in this moment – effectively deceived by our sin. Sin blinds and the first person sin blinds is you. The first person my sin blinds is me. So I do go into each week knowing that there is sin in my life I don’t perceive. And I need the eyes of others in order to perceive. And, if I don’t have their eyes on my soul, beginning with my wife’s, I won’t perceive.
I’ve had countless experiences where my evaluation of myself was flattering. I fulfilled the Proverbs that my ways certainly did appear right and superior in my eyes. If I was left to my own eyes, evaluating my own soul, the evaluation would be flattering and inaccurate. I am very familiar with what it’s like to be in a setting where I am describing what I thought, said, and did and thought to myself, “Good to Go!” And then others are invited to examine what I thought, said, and did and provide their perspective. Their questions, observations, interpretations — if I am leaning forward and humbly listening — can make all the difference.
I have had numerous dramatic experiences where I can say “once I was blind, now I see.” And the means by which I see is the grace of God through others. My sin was obvious to them, but not to me. You only need a few of those to remain very close to people and aggressively pursue their questions, observations, and interpretations.
SS: How would you address men who believe this, desire this, want this — but they are in a local church where they would describe relationships with other men as superficial and distant acquaintances. They haven’t taken it to the level where they are really benefiting from truth, honesty, accountability, and encouragement on the level you’ve experienced? Where would you tell these men to start?
CJ: I would tell them to start with their own hearts. If they are convinced that they need the eyes of other on their soul and the help of others for their soul, it shouldn’t be difficult for any man here to identify one, two, or three men they trust and respect to approach and to invite into their lives.
Here’s what we need to assume — others are reluctant to correct us. And this is for a number of reasons. Often it’s humility. Sometimes it’s a fear of man. Sometimes it’s a combination. People are reluctant to correct, therefore we have to aggressively pursue people. We need to take the initiative, we need to weaken them or wear them out with our numerous requests.
If we are really convinced that we want to grow in grace and godliness and there are blind spots in our lives, we will welcome the discerning and caring eyes of others upon our lives. If you are convinced of that it won’t be difficult in practice to find someone else to help you in that process.
And where that begins for every married man is with his wife. Presenting yourself to your wife and saying, “If you knew I wouldn’t get angry…” Do this in relaxed context with plenty of time so you are not hurried and inform her ahead of time that you want to know from her three ways you can more effectively serve and lead her. Then three ways you can more effectively lead and serve the children. Then you set aside time to draw her out.
SS: It’s helpful to do that at a cheap restaurant.
CJ: Absolutely! You do not want to be subsidizing that event in a fancy restaurant with a lot of money. You want to reserve those occasions and locations for romance. For this one, In-N-Out Burger will do just fine. Starbucks will do just fine. What you need is privacy and time.
Most important you must have humility. Your wife has observations. Every man here can assume that your wife has observations, and ones she has not shared with you. You can return home assuming that. You can also return assuming that her observations can make a dramatic difference in your life if you will humbly draw her out and respond to those. Then you just expand the number of individuals who are involved. You will be amazed at what people observe that you don’t perceive. But by God’s grace you will perceive what they observe if you humbly submit to their observations.
Now one final thing I should say. I’m not assigning infallibility to their observations. There is no one who is going to bring infallible observations. Often with these people who know you the best, the most and up close and personal, will have some degree of accuracy in what they observe. If you are humble, it can make all the difference in your life.
If you want to accelerate growth in godliness, present yourself to them and invite the observations of your wife and others in the context of a local church. Then be prepared to receive their observations. I know in the past I’ve said, “Hey, I’m really interested in any observations you have. I would like your evaluation.” And then I’m stunned when they say, “We’ll I do have a couple.”
“Oh!? Okay. Well let’s begin with evidences of grace.” [laughter]
SS: Today C.J. has referred to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway: 2006). If you haven’t got this, it is a must for your bookshelf and for you to read through. Also valuable for your sons as you use it to train them to understand what biblical manhood looks like.
CJ: Actually, I would encourage the men to start with John Ensor’s, Doing Things Right in Matters of the Heart (Crossway: 2007). As an introduction to this topic, John Ensor has served us all well. John is very humble. It’s a book intended for single adults to help prepare them for marriage. Once I read it, I thought, “No, it’s not. It’s written to all who are married.” It is the best preparatory work I’m aware of, but it’s also a book for all who are married, both male and female. He has several chapters where he contrasts the role of the man with the role of the woman. Each of these chapters includes a definition, description, and contrast. It will serve the men here and will also be a very helpful book for husbands and wives to go through.
Finally, the assignment in purchasing a book like Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not that you must read it cover-to-cover. No. If you will work through the table of contents there will be certain chapters that stand out to you that will be more immediately relevant to you and make a difference in your life.
SS: C.J., thank you for this time. Thank you for sharing your life with us!
Our friends over at 10:31 Sermon Jams are getting ready to launch a new and improved Website next week and with it comes the release of their 4th volume of sermon jams. And they keep getting better! Over the coming days at TSS we’ll be giving you some exclusive access to songs from the new volume.
This first one, War, comes from John Piper’s sermon on Romans 8:10-17 (his ministry will always be equated in my mind with thunder):
“I hear so many Christians murmuring about their imperfections and their failures and their addictions and their short-comings, And I see so little war! ‘Murmur, murmur, murmur… Why am I this way?’ MAKE WAR!”
Ed Welch: “There is a mean streak to authentic self-control. Self-control is not for the timid. When we want to grow in it, not only do we nurture an exuberance for Jesus Christ, we also demand of ourselves a hatred for sin. The only possible attitude toward out-of-control desire is a declaration of all-out war. There is something about war that sharpens the senses. You hear a twig snap or the rustling of leaves and you are in attack mode. Someone coughs and you are ready to pull the trigger. Even after days of little or no sleep, war keeps us vigilant.”
The way I see it, the most delicate balance of the Christian life is in maintaining a Cross-centered perspective and pursuing personal obedience. Push a little too hard on the one side, I fall into self-righteousness and legalism, thinking God’s acceptance of me is rooted in personal obedience. This is spiritual suicide. Or I fall on the other side in thinking the Cross demotes personal obedience to the status of “minor importance.” This too is wrong.
In John 15:1-17 Christ gives us a radical alternative. Here He teaches us that the high calling of personal obedience presses us into the Cross-centered life. Let me explain.
Obedience and comfort
I’ll begin with a hypothetical. What if you somehow discovered that your friend was going to endure, over the next week, the most horrible experience of their life? They will learn another close and beloved friend has experienced a ghastly and painful death. What words today would you leave with your friend to prepare them for the coming pain?
My guess is that we would speak only words of comfort. We would weep with those about to weep. God is faithful, we would say. He will be with you. He will not leave you even in the darkest times.
I think we would agree that – on this brink of tragedy – it would be odd and out of place to call our friend to pursue personal obedience.
Yet on the brink of the crucifixion this is exactly what Christ does. As the disciples are about to forsake the Son and see Him crucified, Christ prepares them by calling them to pursue obedience and fruitfulness (John 15:1-17).
‘Abide in my love’
“Abide in my love” Jesus tells the remaining 11 disciples (v. 9). The Cross will forever exhibit the greatest expression of love ever displayed (v. 13). It’s here, on the Cross, that Christ gives His Body to be murdered to bear the wrath of God’s judgement as the Substitute. He will bear our guilt. He will bear our sins. The wrath we deserve will be redirected into the perfect Son. This is the greatest love. So rest, delight, dwell, find your life, “abide” in this love.
This is to say the spiritual life of the Christian is sustained by the Cross. “Abide in my love” is Jesus’ call to live and breathe and find all nourishment and life in the Cross. Paul says it well, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is now sustained “by faith” in the Cross of Christ!
All my righteousness before God and all my spiritual vibrancy derive from this love, this Cross!
Fruit for the Father
In light of the Cross I think it is natural (though not accurate) to de-value personal obedience. Quite the opposite! By giving us the spiritual life necessary, the Cross actually strengthens the call of Christian obedience.
For the Christian (those with “new life”) only abiding in the life-giving Cross makes fruitfulness possible! Previously, the sinner outside the Christ was nothing more than a dead branch seeking to bear fruit but dehydrated from all spiritual life. Christ is our life.
Tucked in verse 8 we glimpse at the very heart of the Trinitarian motivations behind the Cross. Jesus says His Father is glorified when we bear fruit. The fruitfulness of the saint is a direct growth from the life and nourishment of the Cross. Think of it this way: We bear fruit by abiding in the Cross, the fruit of the branches is plucked by the Son and then carried to the Father in a bushel basket as an offering of glorification from the Son to the Father. Here we see the profound motives of Christ to glorify the Father.
In this cycle of the saints feeding off the Cross and bearing fruit, of the Son plucking the fruit and offering His Father the glory, we see Cross-centered thinking and diligent obedience come together. It’s important that we fight the tendency to emphasize works over the Cross and the tendency to think the Cross makes obedience an optional or secondary pursuit.
The calling to pursue diligent obedience and bear fruit came packaged with a stern warning that fruitless branches are thrown into the fire (v. 6). So why the hard demands of Jesus to bear fruit? How can He get away with such strong words? Here’s why: His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.
Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.
We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience.
Living Upon the Son of God
by Horatius Bonar (1808-1889)
[As a compliment to Sinclair Ferguson’s quotation from earlier in the day, this is an excellent example from one of my favorite authors of how the imperatives of Scripture should be wrapped in the indicatives of the Gospel. Notice by the end we have been called to endure hardships and pursue holiness. -Tony]
“I live by the faith of the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20)
Through the law we die; through the cross we live. The law kills; it kills even to itself: ‘We, through the law, are dead to the law.’ But this legal death produces or issues in a divine life; we die to the law, that we may live to God; we are crucified with Christ; yet we live; this crucifixion (or death) produces life; and yet this new life is not our own, — it is that of Christ; who dwelleth in us, and liveth in us, so that the life which we live in the flesh, we live by faith on the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us. This is the love that passeth knowledge; this is the gift that transcends all gifts.
Thus Christ is our life; its spring or fountain; its root; its storehouse or treasury. We live not upon ourselves, but on another; all that we have, and are, and hope for, is derived from that other.
1. We live upon His person. His person, like His name, is wonderful. It is both divine and human. It contains all that is excellent in the creature, along with all that is excellent in the Creator. His person is the great vessel of fullness, in which is contained all that is needed by the neediest of souls. It pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell. In Him is the perfection of all perfection, the glory of all glory. On this glorious person we live. We draw our spiritual life out of Him. We live by faith upon Him. In receiving the Father’s testimony to His person, we draw in the life which is in Him for us. We use Him. We partake of His fullness. The virtue that is in Him flows out to us. Out of His fullness we receive, and grace for grace, — like wave upon wave.
2. We live upon his work. The great feature in that work is substitution, atonement, propitiation. It contains many things; but this especially: ‘Christ died for our sins.’ He ‘gave Himself for us.’ He was ‘made sin for us.’ It is this aspect of His work that so specially suits us; for what we require is one to stand in our stead, to represent our persons, to bear our sins, to furnish us with a righteousness. His work upon the cross presents us with all these, — – His finished work, His accepted sacrifice, His precious blood, His completed expiation on ‘the accursed tree.’ On this work we live daily. It is a quickening work; a work the knowledge of which is life to the dead soul. To disbelieve that work, or to lose sight of it, is death; to believe it, and to keep our eye upon it, is life and healing. The sight of it, or the thinking about it (call it by what name we please), draws in life; we live in and by looking. This work contains the divine fullness provided for the sinner.
3. We live upon His love. It is love such as men saw on earth when He went about speaking the words and doing the works of grace. It is love (or grace) which comes out so specially from the person and the work; the love of Christ; love without measure; love that passeth knowledge. It is love, infinite, free, suitable, unchanging. The knowledge of this great love is life and peace. Jesus loves! ‘As the Father bath loved me, so have I loved you; continue ye in my love.’ How quickening and comforting is love like this!
We have thus spoken generally of what we get out of Christ’s living fullness. But let us now ask what this living upon Christ does for us. What do we specially get?
A. We get strength. In looking, we are strengthened with might in the inner man. Out of the depth of weakness we look, and are made strong. Connection with the person, the work, the love of Christ, communicates the divine strength. We lean upon His arm.
B. We get peace. The sight of Him whose name is the Peacemaker pours in peace. It is a peace-giving sight. We get peace by the blood of His cross; for He is our peace. Each fresh look communicates fresh peace, — the peace which passeth all understanding.
C. We get sympathy and consolation. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. In all our affliction He is afflicted. He sympathizes with us; He goes down to the lowest depths of our sorrow; He comforts us in all our tribulation.
D. We get health. The sight of Him is healing. As we remember Him or think of Him, health flows into us. The fragrance of His name is medicine. To think of Him, is to inhale the health. Thus our cure proceeds; thus our diseases are banished.
E. We get holiness. Contact with Jesus is sanctifying. It is faith which brings us into contact with Him, and it is by faith that we are purified. We live by faith on the Son of God, and are by Him made holy. Thus it is that we are taught to hate sin, and thus we learn to seek holiness, and to delight in all progress therein. Christ says to us, Be holy; His cross says to us, Be holy; His love says to us, Be holy.
F. We get eternal glory. If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him. ‘Thou hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood,’ sing the saints in heaven, ‘and hast made us kings and priests unto God: and we shall reign on the earth.’ Oneness with Him in humiliation leads to oneness with Him in glory; the glory to be revealed when He comes again.
- Horatius Bonar, Light and Truth in The Life and Works of Horatius Bonar on CD-Rom (LUX publications: 2004), pp. 744-745.
Ferguson: Supporting the imperatives to holiness
At the 2007 Banner of Truth conference this Spring, Sinclair Ferguson made the following note after reading Titus 2:11-13 (“For the grace of God has appeared … training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions”). He says,
“The great gospel imperatives to holiness are ever rooted in indicatives of grace that are able to sustain the weight of those imperatives. The Apostles do not make the mistake that’s often made in Christian ministry. [For the Apostles] the indicatives are more powerful than the imperatives in gospel preaching. So often in our preaching our indicatives are not strong enough, great enough, holy enough, or gracious enough to sustain the power of the imperatives. And so our teaching on holiness becomes a whip or a rod to beat our people’s backs because we’ve looked at the New Testament and that’s all we ourselves have seen. We’ve seen our own failure and we’ve seen the imperatives to holiness and we’ve lost sight of the great indicatives of the gospel that sustain those imperatives. … Woven into the warp and woof of the New Testament’s exposition of what it means for us to be holy is the great groundwork that the self-existent, thrice holy, triune God has — in Himself, by Himself and for Himself — committed Himself and all three Persons of His being to bringing about the holiness of His own people. This is the Father’s purpose, the Son’s purchase and the Spirit’s ministry.”
- Sinclair Ferguson, message from the 2007 Banner of Truth Conference, Our Holiness: The Father’s Purpose and the Son’s Purchase.
Along with Titus 2:11-13, Ferguson cited 1 Peter 1:1-2, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Romans 8:28-29 and 15:16. Ferguson preached from John 15:9 the next day where Jesus’ call for fruitful disciples is wrapped in His call for them to “Abide in my love.” Ferguson challenges preachers to root the commands to be holy in the grace of our electing Father, the work of His Son on the Cross and the ongoing work of the indwelling and filling Spirit towards our holiness. The challenge is not to avoid the commands, but make certain our indicatives are strong enough to support them. Preaching from the indicatives assumes the preacher is first living daily in the indicatives of God in his private study.
The importance of God’s wrath
Yesterday I posted some comments about my gratefulness to Christ for escaping the horrifying consequences of my own sinfulness, namely escaping God’s wrath (see Saved from the wrath of God). Today I want to return to the topic and post from a slightly different angle.
From my perspective – and knowing my own heart — we sinners are apt to forget the gospel. When we become ignorant of the gospel, we make unwise life decisions, bear children ignorant of the gospel, and live in marriages where the Cross is not central (Eph. 5:22-33). It’s to our benefit, humility, and joy to be reminded of Scripture’s emphasis upon the wrath of God poured out towards sinners. This is what Christians have been saved from. The wrath of God is absorbed in the substitutionary work of Jesus Christ as our judicious and forensic Savior, and we are never beyond need of reminding.
So why is the doctrine of God’s wrath so important? For starters, the gospel – that the wrath of God resting upon the heads of all sinners, is, in Christ, absorbed when He drank the cup of our condemnation and substitutes Himself for the redeemed – is always in a process of erosion. This is especially true today.
One of the most noted dangers of the New Perspective(s) of Paul is the de-emphasis on Christ as the substitute who absorbs the wrath of God. After citing direct quotations from prominent NPP writer N.T. Wright, T. David Gordon writes, “The enemies and powers defeated by Christ do not (for Wright) include God’s own wrath or judgment … when he explains Paul’s narrative theology, and the cross and resurrection as the center of that narrative, he is entirely right, but when he explains precisely what Christ therein triumphed over, the wrath of God is not among the panoply” [in Gary L.W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters, editors. By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification (Crossway: 2006), p. 63].
The point is we are always in danger of forgetting God’s wrath. By sheer volume of Bible references, the wrath of God towards every sinner is the central consequence of our sinfulness. It is central to the work of Christ, central to the gospel, and central to living the Cross centered life.
So in hopes of stirring you up by way of reminder, here is a (short) list of some reasons why the theme of God’s wrath is important:
1. God’s wrath is biblical. The Scriptures are saturated with the wrath of God. Look for yourself. Talking about God’s wrath is nothing but letting the priorities of Scripture become our own priorities. We should be humbled and sobered by God’s wrath, but never silent. God has promised that sinners – all who are sexually impure, covetous, idolatrous, or otherwise impure and unrighteous – will face the wrath of God (Jam. 2:10; Eph. 5:3-6). Those who say otherwise are speaking empty and deceptive words.
2. God’s wrath reveals God. The wrath of God reveals His holiness, envy, perfections, an intense hatred of rebellion, His righteousness, His justice, His power. “I will make myself known among them, when I judge you” (Ezek. 35:11). Soberly, God reveals Himself in the damnation of the wicked. “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9:22-23). The beauty of the Cross and the redeemed shines with greater luster when compared to the coming condemnation coming upon the wicked. Until we understand God’s holiness and wrath, we will only have wrong conceptions of Him.
3. God’s wrath reveals who we are. We are sinners. We exchange the glory of God for created things. We happily replace the joy of God for collecting Hallmark figurines, antiques and Beanie Babies (Rom. 1:18-23). We would rather treasure the fleeting things of the world and forfeit our souls (Mark 8:36). We are His subjects, but we do everything in our power to reject Him. We will abandon the natural biological creation to invent our own unnatural means of rebellion (Rom. 1:27). Every act of rebellion stokes the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). If we have become honest with ourselves, we know that we are wrath-deserving, glory-exchanging, sin-pursuing sinners that (apart from Christ) can only expect the eternal wrath of God’s holiness. This is who we are. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the great preachers of the 20th century, writes: “The way to appreciate your own sinfulness is not to look at your actions, nor your life, but to come into the presence of God” (Great Doctrines, 1:72). Step close enough to feel the heat of God’s holiness.
4. Importance of God’s wrath in the daily life of the Christian. To the question, “How are you today?”, C.J. Mahaney has popularized the response: “Better than I deserve.” Try it sometime. The barista behind the counter at Starbucks will give you a very puzzled look. But this will also be a great opportunity to share that an understanding of God’s wrath has made a permanent impact in your heart. So what do you deserve? Do you deserve perfect health? A venti Americano? Comfortable finances? An early retirement? Comforts? Vacations? The Christian knows better. Sinners (of which Christians will be until we see Christ face-to-face and have our sin burned away) deserve the wrath of God. It’s only because of God’s graciousness in the death of His Son that some sinners will be spared. Most sinners will get exactly what they deserve — the undiluted, eternal torment of God’s burning wrath. So why do we get angry when our comforts are disrupted by our spouse or children? Take a look into your own heart and ask: What upsets me? These disruptions are typically rooted in a misunderstanding that we are entitled to something other than wrath.
5. God’s wrath kills self-righteousness. If ever there was a truth that would break a self-righteous sinner like me, it’s the truth that God’s wrath rests upon me eternally if I am uncovered by the righteousness of Christ. My church attendance and good works and kindness and charity are a flick of water into a raging furnace. What can I do to cool the wrath of God? In light of His blazing holiness, what efforts, what works, will extinguish His wrath towards each of my sins? The popular wax gospel of human invention — that God will be pleased with me because I am not as bad as others – melts near the furnace of God’s wrath. Even a great and righteous prophet must pronounce condemnation upon himself in the presence of a holy God (Isa. 6:1-7).
6. God’s wrath exalts the work of Christ. How easily we forget that the searing pain and scorching suffering of Christ can never be pictured by His lacerated back and the holes in His hands, feet and side. These physical pains are only a surface-level visual to the horrors of the Son drinking down the cup of God’s wrath (Mark 14:32-36 with Jer. 25:15-38). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). Or to put it another way, “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The Gospel is centered around God’s wrath. For in His anger towards sinners He transferred the wrath from His children onto His only Son and then crushed that only Son. Until we catch a glimpse of the horrors of God’s wrath, we will never begin to see the horror and the beauty of the Cross.
7. God’s wrath motivates evangelism. How can we be quiet? “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others” (2 Cor. 5:11). The thought that sinners would rest content in self-righteousness was appalling to the Apostle Paul. All self-righteous sinners, and especially the religious, need to hear the gospel to be saved from the wrath of God. This gospel travels on the wings of preachers sent out with the self-righteous killing Gospel (Rom. 10:1-21). What loosens the mouth to speak the Gospel is a heart that has seen a glimpse of the eternal wrath awaiting sinners (Acts 17:30-31).
8. God’s wrath drives me deep into doctrine. I can only escape God’s wrath if I am justified. So what is justification? Justification is the transfer of Christ’s righteousness to me, whereby God declares me “righteous” and takes my sin and wrath and transfers these upon the account of Christ, whereby He is declared “guilty” and endures the wrath I deserve. By faith, I entrust my salvation alone to Jesus Christ, my sin is atoned, I am declared righteous, I have the hope of eternal life and enjoy peace with God (Rom. 3:9-5:21; Gal. 3:1-14; Phil. 3:1-11; 2 Cor. 5:21). If I am not justified, I am not safe from the wrath of God. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9). The wrath of God gives significance to doctrines like justification.
9. God’s wrath reveals the beauty of our adoption. We are all by nature sinners and this makes us naturally “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). But now the enemies of God can be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10). We are more than justified and declared righteous, we are taken into the family of God! Through Christ, our relationship to God radically changes! By faith alone, we come back to our Father in all our filthy sinfulness and He runs to us, grabs us, kisses us, celebrates over us, and calls us His children (Luke 15:11-32). If you are justified, God has taken His judgments away from you and now sings over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:14-17)! The wrath of God was paid in Christ and through this beautiful Gospel I am now accepted. It’s not because I am good enough or ever will be obedient enough, rather because of His graciousness alone. Every day I can wake up knowing I am a child of God and that will never depend upon my own appeasement of God. Jesus, Thank you!
Jesus, Thank You (song by Pat Sczebel, Sovereign Grace Ministries)
The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend
The agonies of Calvary
You the perfect Holy One, crushed Your Son
Who drank the bitter cup reserved for me
Your blood has washed away my sin
Jesus, thank You
The Father’s wrath completely satisfied
Jesus, thank You
Once Your enemy, now seated at Your table
Jesus, thank You
By Your perfect sacrifice I’ve been brought near
Your enemy You’ve made Your friend
Pouring out the riches of Your glorious grace
Your mercy and Your kindness know no end
Related: Propitiation is the theological term for the appeasement of God’s wrath in Christ’s substitutionary work for sinners. Theologian John Murray writes, “Sin is the contradiction of God and he must react against it with holy wrath. Wherever sin is, the wrath of God rests upon it (cf. Rom. 1:18). Otherwise God would be denying Himself, particularly His holiness, justice, and truth. But wrath must be removed if we are to enjoy the favor of God which salvation implies. And the only provision for the removal of wrath is propitiation. This is surely the import of Romans 3:25, 26, that God set forth Christ a propitiation to declare His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the ungodly.”
The weight, beauty and comfort of the Gospel
Recently I came across a stunning preface John Calvin wrote for Pierre Robert Olivétan’s French translation of the New Testament (1534). To my knowledge the English translation of this preface is found only in Joseph Haroutunian’s work, Calvin: Commentaries [a strange place to find it since this preface is not part of the commentaries]. Anyways, in it Calvin traces out the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises throughout Scripture, shows the supernatural unity of the bible’s message and the significance of the gospel message revealed in Scripture. He writes,
“Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe …” (66)
Because of the weight of this gospel revealed in Scripture, it’s no surprise that Calvin closes this preface with words for preachers: “O you who call yourselves bishops and pastors of the poor people, see to it that the sheep of Jesus Christ are not deprived of their proper pasture; and that it is not prohibited and forbidden that any Christian feely and in his own language to read, handle, and hear this holy gospel…” (72).
These two quotes – one on the centrality of the gospel and the second on the importance of preaching – really reveal the heart of John Calvin as a man riveted to the Cross.
But I was especially struck by the following section where Calvin shows us that all the Christian’s comfort and hope rests in the person and work of Jesus Christ. He writes,
“It follows that every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in this same Jesus Christ alone. For, he was sold, to buy us back; captive, to deliver us; condemned, to absolve us; he was made a curse for our blessing, sin offering for our righteousness; marred that we may be made fair; he died for our life; so that by him fury is made gentle, wrath appeased, darkness turned into light, fear reassured, despisal despised, debt canceled, labor lightened, sadness made merry, misfortune made fortunate, difficulty easy, disorder ordered, division united, ignominy ennobled, rebellion subjected, intimidation intimidated, ambush uncovered, assaults assailed, force forced back, combat combated, war warred against, vengeance avenged, torment tormented, damnation damned, the abyss sunk into the abyss, hell transfixed, death dead, mortality made immortal. In short, mercy has swallowed up all misery, and goodness all misfortune. For all these things which were to be the weapons of the devil in his battle against us, and the sting of death to pierce us, are turned for us into exercises which we can turn to our profit. If we are able to boast with the apostle, saying, O hell, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? it is because by the Spirit of Christ promised to the elect, we live no longer, but Christ lives in us; and we are by the same Spirit seated among those who are in heaven, so that for us the world is no more, even while our conversation [life] is in it; but we are content in all things, whether country, place, condition, clothing, meat, and all such things. And we are comforted in tribulation, joyful in sorrow, glorying under vituperation [verbal abuse], abounding in poverty, warmed in our nakedness, patient amongst evils, living in death. This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.” (69-70)
These are beautiful words! The introduction as a whole is a masterpiece, taking the reader from the biblical storyline and the Messianic promises to the gospel itself, showing that our eternal life and present comforts rest in Christ alone. Then he finishes with an exhortation that preachers be diligent to proclaim this Word.
It is good for us to remember the grace of God in revealing His Word to ungrateful truth-suppressors and and illuminating His Word to blind sinners. Let us remember that, “Without the gospel everything is useless and vain” and let us study Scripture seeking to “truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.”
So how do you persuade the French people towards Reformation theology? You point them to Scripture and specifically to the complete and perfect work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Calvin persuaded masses because his message was Scripture-saturated, grace-filled, and Cross-centered. The gospel was everything! With this in mind, French readers could read right into Matthew and the rest of the New Testament on a quest to see Christ’s glory for themselves.
Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is a masterpiece of theology. This year I have set out to read the entire English translation. I am already struck by the pastoral gems I find scattered throughout the book. Calvin, as I have recently discovered, had a very pastoral heart and sensitivity to the Christian life. He was just as gifted as an experiential preacher as he was a theologian. On the topic of our growth in godliness, I recently came across this jewel:
“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him.”
- John Calvin [1509-1564]
Institutes of the Christian Religion, McNeill and Battles, eds., p. 689.