Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Category: Sanctification Page 1 of 3

Deliver Us from Manhood

Three and one-half years ago I wrote a series of posts questioning the whole idea of “Biblical Manhood.” My concern was to call men to quit worrying about being “manly,” whatever that might mean, and to embrace decency instead. “Biblical Decency” seems to me to be a far more defensible concept. To be a decent, trustworthy, and compassionate guy seems to me to be something more critical than exercising some dubious quality called masculinity.

Those posts bear reposting. We live in a moment that more than ever seems devoid of decency. Among the many examples that could be named (such as the macho chest pounding that passes as US foreign policy, and is cheered by some Christians) the primary one that leads me to revisit these posts is the one that has landed hard on my corner of the Christian world. In this corner, the one that birthed the idea of “Biblical Manhood,” there has been shown to be great rottenness. That brings shame on us all.

Aimee Byrd, a thoughtful and articulate woman, has written a book in which she challenges some of the assumptions and consequences of the Biblical Manhood movement. The response she has received has been ugly. “Biblical Men” can apparently be mean, which should cast a suspicious cloud over the whole business. The controversy has been well summarized by Ed Stetzer in Christianity Today and discussed by Byrd herself here and to some degree here. It seems that to some men what matters is not that she is thoughtful and articulate. What matters is that she is a woman. Frightened, I suppose, by a strong and courageous woman, they have launched ad hominen attacks on her character, her appearance, and her biblical faithfulness.

This is disheartening to me. (No doubt this is because I’m an effeminate softie.) But I would think it obvious to most that decent men or women do not demean the looks or reputations of others, whether those others be men or women. How can this be such a hard lesson to learn? Boys will be boys, some say, though even that is worth questioning. But men should be granted no pass to be cruel. We will be, of course. Occasionally we will say something mean or disparaging of another. But when called on it, decent men own it and seek forgiveness. So do women. It’s a part of being a Christian.

So, yes, for what it is worth, these things bear repeating and reposting. So, I will repost over the next several days. If you don’t want to wait, you can read them in their original setting here.

Goodness and Greatness

When Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 Mark Twain, had this to say:

“He was a very great man and superlatively good.” (Grant, page 954)

Twain was a cynic unimpressed with power and pretense. He skewered those presuming greatness and mocked those pretending to be good. In Grant Twain saw the greatness others saw, but he saw it rooted in a fundamental goodness of character. Grant was, as Twain noted and his biographer (Ron Chernow) reveals, a fundamentally decent, honest, and principled man. He was human and not perfect, but nevertheless he was superlatively good.

Few will find greatness thrust upon them like Grant. Fewer still will rise to the challenge. But decency is within reach of us all if we but honored it and sought it.

And in the long run, such goodness will be of much greater consequence.

Faith Anchored by Heaviness

As a pastor, of all the characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress I’m drawn especially to the faithful and fearless Mr. Greatheart. Mr. Greatheart was a guide guiding pilgrims from the City of Destruction to their hoped for arrival at the Celestial City.

He was, that is, a pastor.

Mr. Greatheart would guide people of every disposition. Those who made that journey were not only men of strength, such as Hopeful and Christian and Faithful, but also Mr. Little-faith, Much-Afraid, Mr. Despondency, and Mr. Ready-to-Halt. Pastors come alongside many people for whom the journey is long and hard and difficult. That is what a congregation looks like.

One of those struggling pilgrims was one Mr. Fearing. A cloud of darkness clung to Mr. Fearing, but Mr. Greatheart hung with him and saw him to his destination. In talking about him afterwards with Mr. Honest, Mr. Greatheart makes some thoughtful observations regarding those for whom such darkness is close companion.

Honest: But what should be the reason that such a good man should be all his days so much in the dark?

Great-heart: There are two sorts of reasons for it; one is, The wise God will have it so, some must pipe, and some must weep: Now Mr. Fearing was one that played upon this bass. He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other musick are; though indeed some say, the bass is the ground of musick: And for my part, I care not at all for that profession, that begins not in heaviness of mind. The first string that the musician usually touches, is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune; God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself. Only here was the imperfection of Mr. Fearing, he could play upon no other musick but this, till towards his latter end.

Heaviness of mind, depth of thought, even depression, adds a weight and solemnity to one’s profession of faith that holds it steady through much struggle. Too often, of course, as with Mr. Fearing, that is the only note we learn to play.

For Those Who Are a Mess

I just finished teaching a class at Covenant Presbyterian Church called “If Holiness Is By Grace, Then Why Am I Such a Mess?” It’s been a fun class to teach and is, in essence, an expansion on the thoughts recorded previously on this site. The audio for the class is posted on the CPC web site.

Or at least most of it is. The recording of the sixth and final class got garbled at some point so that it no longer exists. So if you have listened to the classes, and missed the last one, I would encourage you to at LEAST read this as a summary of the content of that class.

For that class, I prepared a list of resources which I thought might be good to share here. It is presented with the hope that any who continue to work through and wrestle with what it means to be a follower of Christ might find some continued help and encouragement along the way from some very gifted fellow pilgrims.

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Resources / If Holiness Is by Grace, Then Why Am I Such a Mess?

Some of you may want to read more regarding this subject. This listing is in no way comprehensive and it bears no authority. These are simply resources which have had a positive impact on me over the years. I share them hoping that perhaps they might have the same impact on others. (And perhaps I need not say it, but I will anyway – a reference to a book or author does not mean I endorse everything that author says or that book contains!]

About the gospel

If we are to rejoice in the gospel, a great help is good preaching that articulates and applies the gospel.
I recommend listening to the sermons here listed under the heading of ‘The Gospel’.
Clarity about the gospel as well comes through this little book:
Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God

About Jesus

I have come to the conviction that we lose enthusiasm for following Jesus when we lose sight of who he is. To that end, of course, read the gospels. But I have been greatly helped over the years by this little book. It is increasingly hard to find, but I have a loaner copy that I am willing to share. We will want to obey the one we love; this book helps us learn to love Jesus.
R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire [Also published under the title Jesus the Radical. Though out of print, this is often available here: ]
Aimed at a bit more scholarly crowd, this book never fails to move my soul:
Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ

About God

To know God is to know something about the way he works. To know something about the way he works is critical to understanding his role in our sanctification. Helpful over the years for me have been these:
J. I. Packer, Knowing God
John Piper, Desiring God

About idolatry

At the heart of ungodly behavior is idolatry. Some helpful reflection on that is found here:
Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods

About Sanctification Itself

Of the writing of books about sanctification, there is no end. These three will help direct your thoughts on the matter, and challenge, perhaps, your previous thinking.
Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality
Bryan Chapell, Holiness by Grace
Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom

On Mortification

The practical matters of the mortification of sin were famously addressed by the Puritan John Owen. Recently, Kris Lundgaard has attempted to repackage Owen’s ideas for a modern audience. The link to Owen’s book is actually a reprint of it with helpful analysis called Overcoming Sin and Temptation but there are many editions of Owen’s original out there.
John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin
Kris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within

And because everything this guy writes is worth reading…

That sounds gratuitous, but it isn’t. I was shaped greatly by John Frame long before I became his pastor, though I never was a student of his. I was not able in the preparation of this material to read John’s discussion of sanctification, but you can do so, with great profit I am sure, in his newly published systematic theology.
John Frame, Systematic Theology

And just because I MUST have a Eugene Peterson book on this list

Eugene Peterson is so level headed and real. He writes about the Christian life from the point of view of a pastor of real people. These are his reflections on the Psalms of Ascent. A classic work.
Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

Finally, avoid books that just tell you to work harder

This will be the bulk of what is written. If you do read such a book, you might still profit IF you remember the context in which our work occurs, and where the source of real change lies.

To God be the glory.
February 23, 2014

Lenten Fast

Predictably this time of year debates ramp up over the propriety of the observance of Lent in the Church. I’m not interested enough in those debates to enter into them now. What I can affirm is that properly framed, fasting is good and commended by Jesus. And I can also testify that fasting from anything is anathema to me because the stuff I love, I love. I don’t let go easily.

But I’m fasting this Lent, and am loving it.

I’m a naturally introspective person. And generally, when I turn my thoughts inward, I don’t like what I see. My sin, my weakness, my personality defects, my lack of faith, often overwhelm me. And I can’t seem to help it.

Consequently, when I read the scriptures, I don’t see the kindness and compassion of God. I see more readily my inability to hold on to God’s promises, I see my weak commitment to holiness, I see commands that I’ve been unable to keep.

THAT is what I’ve decided to give up for Lent.

My focus this season – and one hopes there is a lasting effect – is to read Scripture with the goal of simply seeing my Savior. I read and reflect upon the attributes of God. I’m not allowed to ponder long my defects along the way.

I’m not expecting this to give me a whole new personality. I’ll still be far too quick to note my faults and highlight my failures. But perhaps incremental progress will matter in the long run.

A guy who cares too much about his appearance will look in the mirror and see only the mole on his nose or the hair out of place. Such a focus will wear him down to the place he can see nothing good. The remedy is to take his eyes off himself and look at the beauty of the One who loves him without concern for his appearance.

I’ve put away the mirror for Lent. Care to join me?

Sanctification: Fixed. I think.

A few years ago, I wrote a series of posts in which I puzzled through the question of how change might really be seen and gained in a Christian’s life. And over those years, people have asked me questions which seemed best answered by in some measure referring them to that series of posts. So, I compiled a single post with links to the others in the series, and have directed people there.

However, also, in the course of those years, I switched from posting on Blogger to posting on WordPress. And, silly me, I did not realized that in making such a transition, all the links in those posts would be broken. So, any I’ve sent to read through those have found a spaghetti nest mess.

I think I have now cleaned up the mess. I have, oh arrogant claims, fixed sanctification. Well, at least my posts on them.

For those curious what all the fuss is about, you can see the whole series here. All joking aside, I find this topic so terribly important. The thoughts expressed in these posts have been ones which have been particularly helpful to me. I offer them here in the hopes that they remain helpful to others.

Needless to say, if you find any more broken links, do let me know via the comments here.


A commenter to my post regarding my study leave said that she would pray that my study time would “lead to much future fruit for you and your flock.” I teasingly asked her to define such ‘fruit’ hoping thereby to know someday whether her prayer had been answered.

It was only a tease in a marginal way. In reality, that is the question that any pastor or teacher or parent is constantly asking. How do I know whether what I am doing makes any difference? How do I measure the harvest of my investment of time and energy?

It is very easy to opt for quantifiable measures. Decent Sunday attendance. Increasing FCAT scores. A trophy case full of a child’s accomplishments. But we all know that these metrics ring hollow over time.

By what fruit do we measure success in ministry? My correspondent is right in saying that fruit is produced by God, and is sometimes invisible to the gardener. And yet, at least, if we cannot force it and we cannot even adequately measure it, what is the goal toward which we should point ministry?

These questions support their own industry. Each year leads to a dozen new books on how one should ‘do’ church. One cannot keep up with all that is produced on the subject even if one was inclined to do so. There is really nothing new to be said.

The most profound book on these matters is Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life published first in 1979. Six years or so later he published Renewal as a Way of Life which he bills as an expansion and a condensation of the first book. Little more than these need to be within reach when thinking about what ministry is to aim for.

For my purposes here I simply want to note where Lovelace begins with his prescription for the church: Spiritual vitality arises in an environment in which God is being known and loved and in which those who know and love him are given over to Jesus as king. If we are finding ways in which we can move people in this direction, then we can take heart that we are doing well.

The challenge of all this, of course, is heavy upon the pastor, or elder, or teacher, or parent. That is, we can move no people, no church, no classroom, no family in this direction if we ourselves are not seeking to know and love God and seeking his kingdom first above all other things. The question must become a challenge which must lead to repentance and a cry for grace.

I once tried to give succinct expression to what I was seeking to accomplish in ministry, and this was the result:

a community of God’s people
where God’s glory is more important than their own,
where God’s righteous will has a greater attraction upon them than the neon attractiveness of sin,
where building God’s kingdom is a more exciting proposition than erecting personal palaces,
where dependence upon the providence and grace of God is commonplace and the source of uncommon joy.
a community which therefore cannot help but reach out, exercise justice, and love mercy.

That still seems adequate for the present, even if I might tweak the words here or there. It seems to aim at a community where God is known and loved, and his kingdom preeminent.

So, if you pray anything, pray that this will be formed ever more deeply in my heart and then in the heart of those I lead.

The Measure of Our Knowledge of God

We may be able for a time to persuade others that our spiritual life is full of depth and glitter. And though it may be less true than we might like, we may for a time begin to believe it of ourselves. As well, our theological erudition, our political savvy, our well portioned service, all may serve to give an outward impression of true spiritual maturity, which may or may not match the inward reality. We may believe ourselves what we work hard to make others believe.

Therefore, it is always good to take this wise caution to heart:

“We must learn to measure ourselves, not by our knowledge about God, not by our gifts and responsibilities in the church, but by how we pray and what goes on in our hearts. Many of us, I suspect, have no idea how impoverished we are at this level. Let us ask the Lord to show us.”

(J. I. Packer, Knowing God, page 27)

In the Way of Grace

Often I have reflected on the relationship between our Christian duty and our growth in Christ-likeness. We would like to better reflect the character of Christ, and certainly it would seem that is God’s desire. We understand that sanctification is a work of God’s Spirit, that the fruit we reflect in our Christian growth is the fruit of the Spirit. It is not the fruit of our own works. And yet our work is involved.

Earlier in these pages, I have sought to give some hopefully helpful reflections on these matters. (Note that the links on this page are to an earlier Blogger edition of this blog.) In doing so, I suggested that one way of thinking of our involvement in the process of growth is to think of our acts of devotion or obedience as acts by which we put ourselves in the ‘way of grace’. If it is so, as we believe, that the Holy Spirit ministers grace to us in the sacraments or in prayer or in the reading and hearing of the word of God, then it makes sense for us to put ourselves in those places where these things are taking place. In my participation in worship, I am not changed as a reward for or as an effect of my obedience, but I am changed as the Spirit of God chooses to use that circumstance to change me. The work is his. It is my joy to find those ‘thin places’ between earth and heaven (a concept I think I am stealing from N. T. Wright) and to place myself there. If I never go to where God’s Spirit is known to work, then it should be no surprise to me that I am rarely the recipient of grace.

All that said, I have rarely heard others speak in this way. However, recently I found in reading Samuel Bolton’s The True Bounds of Christian Freedom, an English Puritan work published in 1645, something very similar.

“How often does a believer go to prayer with a dead heart, and rise with a lively heart! He begins with a straitened heart and rises with an enlarged heart; he begins dejected and ends comforted! How often, when he could find no such motion of God leading him to duty, has he yet met with God in the midst of the duty, and enjoyed God, in a prayer, in a glorious sweet way! … God loves to meet those that are in His way. Though the miller is unable to command the wind, yet he will spread his sails, and thus be in the way to use it, if it come.”

I take this as some positive confirmation that perhaps I’m pointing our noses down a good path previously trod.

Why We Never Feel Complete

Donald Carson reflecting on Jesus’ command to love one another points out the standard of that love is his own sacrificial death on the cross. This helps explain why Christians as they mature find that they are able to see their sin more clearly. As the cross comes more into focus, so does our need of that cross.

“The more we recognize the depth of our own sin, the more we recognize the love of the Saviour; the more we appreciate the love of the Saviour, the higher his standard appears; the higher his standard appears, the more we recognize in our selfishness, our innate self-centeredness, the depth of our own sin. With a standard like this, no thoughtful believer can ever say, this side of the parousia, ‘I am perfectly keeping the basic stipulation of the new covenant.'” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, page 484.)

This also explains why it is so astounding to hear anyone claim that they are without sin.

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