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Is not Christ the first and the last?

Sep 02, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

John_Wesley_by_George_Romney

John Wesley, writing to William Law:

London, May 14, 1738.

Reverend Sir,

It is in obedience to what I think to be the call of God that I, who have the sentence of death in my own soul, take upon me to write to you, of whom I have often desired to learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ. . . .

For two years I have been preaching after the model of your two practical treatises, and all that heard have allowed that the law is great, wonderful, and holy.  But no sooner did they attempt to fulfill it but they found that it is too high for man, and that by doing “the works of the law shall no flesh living be justified.”

To remedy this, I exhorted them, and stirred up myself, to pray earnestly for the grace of God, and to use all the other means of obtaining that grace which the all-wise God hath appointed.  But still, both they and I were more and more convinced that this is a law by which a man cannot live; the law in our members continually warring against it, and bringing us into deeper captivity to the law of sin.

Under this heavy yoke I might have groaned till death, had not an holy man [Peter Boehler] to whom God lately directed me, upon my complaining thereof, answered at once: “Believe, and thou shalt be saved.  Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ with all thy heart, and nothing shall be impossible to thee.  This faith, indeed, as well as the salvation it brings, is the free gift of God.  But seek, and thou shalt find.  Strip thyself naked of thy own works and thy own righteousness, and fly to Him.  For whosoever cometh unto Him, He will in no wise cast out.”

Now, sir, suffer me to ask: How will you answer it to our common Lord that you never gave me this advice?  Did you never read the answer of Paul to him who said, “What must I do to be saved”?  Or are you wiser than he?  Why did I scarce ever hear you name the name of Christ — never, so as to ground anything upon “faith in His blood”?  If you say you advised other things as preparatory to this, what is this but laying a foundation below the foundation?  Is not Christ, then, the first as well as the last?  If you say you advised them because you knew that I had faith already, verily you knew nothing of me; you discerned not my spirit at all.  I know that I had not faith, unless the faith of a devil, the faith of Judas, that speculative, notional, airy shadow, which lives in the head, not in the heart.  But what is this to the living, justifying faith in the blood of Jesus, the faith that cleanseth from sin, that gives us to have free access to the Father, to “rejoice in hope of the glory of God,”  to have “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost” which dwelleth in us, and “the Spirit itself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God”? . . .

Once more, sir, let me beg you to consider whether your extreme roughness and morose and sour behavior, at least on many occasions, can possibly be the fruit of a living faith in Christ.  If not, may the God of peace and love fill up what is yet wanting in you!

I am, reverend sir,

Your humble servant,

John Wesley

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Is your church a culture of safety?

Sep 02, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

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“I have seen so much emotional blackmail in my ministry, I am jealous to raise a warning against it.  Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love.  They aren’t the same.  A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have.  Emotional blackmail says, ‘If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.’  There is no defense.  The hurt person has become God.  His emotion has become judge and jury.  Truth does not matter.  All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved.  It is above question.  This emotional device is a great evil.  I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.”

John Piper, quoted in Ray Ortlund, The Gospel: How The Church Portrays The Beauty of Christ (Wheaton, 2014), page 101.

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Breakthrough power

Sep 01, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

“Because its purpose is entertainment, and because people are more easily amused by the comical and ridiculous than by the noble and edifying, sensate art readily resorts to comedy, farce, satire and ridicule.  In order to avoid boring the viewer or hearer, it constantly changes, always looking for something new and exciting.  As Sorokin says, ‘Since it does not symbolize any supersensory value, it stands and falls by its external appearance . . . [making] lavish use of pomp and circumstance, colossality, stunning techniques and other means of external adornment.’  Nowhere is this more evident than in the colossal motion pictures of our day or in the neopagan spectacles such as the half-time show that accompanies the Super Bowl football game.”

Harold O. J. Brown, The Sensate Culture (Dallas, 1996), page 39.

In our day of exhausting hype, a church with modest resources has all the potential for breakthrough power that the church of Acts 2 experienced – the felt presence of the risen Christ, according to the gospel.  Simplicity and honesty are advantages.

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The exuberant goodness of the Creator

Aug 31, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

“We hence see the exuberant goodness of the Creator, who hath not only provided for all the necessities, but also for the pleasure and recreation of all sorts of creatures, and even the insects and those that are most despicable.”

Jonathan Edwards, quoted in George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, 2003), page 65, upon carefully observing the Tarzan-like ability of a New England spider to swing from tree to tree.

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A Minister’s Inner Life

Aug 28, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

“Chief corruptions to be watched against: sourness, sadness, timorousness, forgetfulness, fretting, and inability to bear wrongs . . . .

Let me resolutely set myself to walk with God through the day.  If anything fall out amiss, recover again speedily, by humble confession, hearty prayer for pardon, with confidence of obtaining.  And so proceed.

Oh, mildness and cheerfulness with reverence, how sweet a companion art thou!

Few rare and worthy men continue so to their end, but, one way or other, fall into coldness, gross sin or to the world; therefore, beware!

Count not the Christian life to be bondage but count it the sweetest liberty and the only way to true peace.  Whensoever this is counted hard, that state that is embraced instead thereof shall be harder.”

John Rogers, quoted in Cotton Mather, The Great Works of Christ in America (Hartford, 1855), I:424.

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All are welcome here

Aug 26, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

“The cross of Jesus displays the most awful exhibition of God’s hatred of sin and at the same time the most august manifestation of his readiness to pardon it.  Pardon, full and free, is written out in every drop of blood that is seen, is proclaimed in every groan that is heard, and shines in the very prodigy of mercy that closes the solemn scene upon the cross.  O blessed door of return, open and never shut, to the wanderer from God!  How glorious, how free, how accessible!  Here the sinful, the vile, the guilty, the unworthy, the poor, the penniless, may come.  Here too the weary spirit may bring its burden, the broken spirit its sorrow, the guilty spirit its sin, the backsliding spirit its wandering.  All are welcome here.

The death of Jesus was the opening and the emptying of the full heart of God; it was the outgushing of that ocean of infinite mercy that heaved and panted and longed for an outlet; it was God showing how he could love a poor, guilty sinner.”

Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (London, 1962), pages 183-184.

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Prophetic power today

Aug 25, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“There is not one of [the Old Testament prophets] who did not receive this new certainty of God in such a way that the whole previous pattern of his life, the thoughts and plans by which he had till now regulated his relationship to the world, was not smashed, and replaced by a mighty divine imperative obliging him to undertake something which hitherto he had not even considered as a possibility.”

Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Philadelphia, 1961), I:345.

“There is something magnificent about these prophet-dreamers, who are so sure of God.”

Ralph S. Cushman, Practicing the Presence (Nashville, 1964), page 108.

Let’s remember today that humility does not mean we are hesitant about God but only about ourselves and very sure of God.  Let’s remember today that brokenness does not mean we are weakened in resolve but only fed up with our sin and very bold for God.  Let’s remember today that when our whole previous pattern of life is smashed it is not destroyed but only remade into even greater usefulness to God.  And let’s remember today that God intends to accomplish gospel miracles through us we don’t even believe are possible.

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God for us, or God against us?

Aug 19, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

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God is for us.  Romans 8:31

But I have this against you.  Revelation 2:4.  See also 2:14, 20; 3:3.

So, which is it?  Is God for us, or is God against us?  If we are in Christ, the answer is: maybe both.  God is certainly for us, and God might also be against us.

God is for us in an absolute sense, in Christ.  We have peace with God (Romans 5:1).  There is now no condemnation threatening us, none at all (Romans 8:1).  God foreknew us, predestined us, called us, justified us and promises to glorify us (Romans 8:29-30).  God is for us.

So here is my assurance.  I can sin my way out of my marriage, I can sin my way out of the ministry, I can sin my way out of physical health, and a lot more.  But I cannot sin my way out of Christ, and neither can you, because the cross of Christ paid the damning penalty for our sins.

God might also be against us at times.  Not that he de-justifies us, but he might discipline us (Hebrews 12:5-6).  He might oppose us (James 4:6).  He might send out wrath against us (2 Chronicles 19:2; 32:25).  Not condemning wrath, but purifying wrath, correcting wrath, for a time.  Even his disciplines and oppositions are gifts of love.  How could it be otherwise?  The smile of God is not an all-approving grin.  What kind of Father would that be?

Is our understanding of the gospel biblical enough to include a category for the God who is for us also being against us?  Is our understanding of the gospel big enough and complex enough so that we feel not only reassured but also solemnized?  If the only message we are willing to receive is reassurance that God’s condemning wrath has fallen on Another, why?  Why block out this other clearly biblical message, warning us that his disciplining wrath can fall on us?  If we are in Christ, why deflect anything the Bible clearly says?

Even when God is against us, still, he is for us.  His love is burning away whatever keeps us from pressing more deeply into his mighty heart.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19).

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Is the Sabbath still relevant?

Aug 13, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”  Exodus 20:8

Let’s not dictate Sabbath observance today.  The point of the Sabbath is a dress rehearsal for a future eternity of glad rest in God.  So, for now, every one of us can work out the details personally.  But in our frantic modern world, the Sabbath offers wisdom that has lasted since the beginning (Genesis 2:2-3).  It is not written on our calendars as much as we are built into its calendar.  It seems to be part of the God-created rhythm for weekly human flourishing.

If we did set apart one day each week for rejuvenation in God, we would immediately add to every year over seven weeks of vacation — and not for “whatever” but for worship, for community, for mercy, for an afternoon nap, for reading and thinking, for lingering around the dinner table with good jokes and tender words and personal prayers.

How else can we find quietness of heart in today’s crazy world?  If anyone has a more biblical (and more immediately beneficial) place to begin, I’m open.  But raising hermeneutical objections to the Sabbath principle doesn’t in itself actually help any of us.

I wonder if the very concept of “the weekend” is biblical.  It seems to me that “the weekend” turns Sunday into a second Saturday.  Home Depot may gain, but we lose.  It turns Sunday into a day to catch up on what we didn’t do Saturday or a day to ramp up for what’s ahead on Monday.  It hollows out our whole week, because it marginalizes God and church and sermons and all the other vital things that happen in our lives only when we make the vital things also the central things.  If we accept the concept of “the weekend,” we risk “fitting God in” rather than centering our every week around him.  We risk living soul-exhausted lives, and wondering why God isn’t more real to us, why we’re exhausted and grumpy.

If we want to find our way back into quietness of heart and reality with God, the first step might be simple.  Bold, but simple.

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The power of the Holy Spirit today

Aug 08, 2015 | Ray Ortlund

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