Sermon for Sunday, May 31, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
GROWING IN GRACE
2 Peter 1:3, 3:18, Acts 2:42-47
Recently I've noticed more Christians using what I call "mid-level" profanity - crude words to describe bodily functions and problems of uncertain ancestry. They use words about God's judgment and punishment when they don't mean it. These words once were forbidden in polite society, on TV and so on.
Sometimes dedicated believers use these words and glance around as if to say, "Do you see how cool and liberated I am?" No, I don't see how cool you are. I am not impressed. There is no hard-won skill on display. And to talk about hell when you don't mean hell looks like taking God's name in vain, which the Bible labels as sin. I admit there are gray areas. The Bible does say, "Rid yourselves of… anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language" (Colossians 3:8). Who man can judge when "potty talk" becomes "filthy language"? Every "dirty word" was normal, acceptable at some point.
But some of our language is sinful. Why this surge in rough language? Is it a desire to project toughness? Is it habits from the armed services? Some Christian leaders use crude language in public.
They seem to do it to show they are genuine, cool, liberated. Others follow, often without even knowing why.
The Bible shows that some people will follow any example – a cussing preacher is perfect if it lets them do what they want to do. People do all sorts of things to prove something, or to project an image of themselves.
This illustrates our topic - the need to consider how we do or do not grow in grace. Cursing is one small element in a broad set of sins of speech that includes blasphemy, slander, deceit, boasting, and lying. We sin in our speech through a combination of bad examples, bad habits, and sometimes a desire to show how "bad" we are. All of us can identify a sin of speech that makes us want to grow in grace. Take a moment… Then let's consider our need for grace.
1. Sin and the need for grace.
A right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving Christianity. Without a doctrine of sin, repentance and conversion, salvation and justification are meaningless. Sin has two elements. The first is the inclination to evil, selfish and unruly desires. The second is the doing of evil: to think, say, and do evil things.
There are many forms of sin: thoughts and deeds, sins of omission and commission. There are many sources of sin: bad training, bad examples, bad companions. Of course, good training, examples and companions are available. Why, therefore, do we choose the bad? Because we desire it.
This desire is not isolated or occasional, like the desire for pomegranates or asparagus. No, the Bible says sin is more like a genetic disorder – one that strikes everyone since Adam and Eve. Jeremiah says, "The heart is deceitful" (Jeremiah17:9). Paul says, "We are by nature children of wrath." That is, there is an inborn tendency to rebel against God, regardless of the consequences (Ephesians 2:3). Isaiah 1:6 says that from head to foot "there is no soundness" in us. That is, we still have all our faculties – mind, will, emotions – and they are wonderful to behold.
The Bible says sin is deceitful (Matthew 13:22, Hebrews 3:13) and it's true. We do things that we ought to know are wrong and make excuses. We pass on shaky rumors. We cheat on our taxes and say, "The government will waste it anyway."
We focus on the great sins but tolerate "respectable sins." Most respectable sins are failures of love.
The Bible says, "Love is patient. It is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Respectable sins come from false love or no love. Greed and worldliness are love of the wrong thing, a love of things, not people (Matthew 13:22). Discontentment is a failure to trust God and to love his will.
When we are discontented, we don't want what God provided, we want something else.
Easy frustration, discontentment, and critical spirit are sins against love. Love "always hopes" – it hopes the best, sees words and actions in the best light. When we lack love, we fin/ fault, pick holes, focus on the weaknesses of others, neglect or minimize the good in them. Love always perseveres, but discontentment and criticism give up and go negative. When we see all our sin we cry for grace!
These things are common and we generally tolerate them, but they are still sin and we need to grow in grace to overcome them. But how do we grow? It starts with the right foundation for the building. It starts with a strong root system for a growing plant. It starts with a sound heart for a strong person.
2. The root of a life of grace.
God's action starts us on a life of grace. 2 Peter 1:3 says, "God's divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness." This is what He does in Romans 8, Ephesians 2: God sends His Spirit to renew or regenerate our hearts. Then we stop being hostile toward God. We're drawn to His truth. We begin to desire what He desires. We want to please God and submit to Him.
The starting point, humanly, is a desire for grace. J.C. Ryle wrote what may be the finest book on growth in grace, called Holiness. As a young man he had no interest in grace. Not that he was a bad fellow. His family went to church, as all proper people did in his day. But the sermons were dull, mumbled and short. There was nothing to challenge anyone. Ryle never read the Bible, sensed no need of God. His father was a great man who owned textile mills, a bank and lands. Ryle attended Eton and Oxford; he won honors in both academics and athletics.
In short, he felt no need of anything. But he did have a Christian friend. One day he was in their home and cursed carelessly. His friend's father rebuked him firmly. That rebuke introduced him to the idea of repentance – the idea that he needed grace. Somehow he didn't bristle or get defe sive. Over the next months, he repented and believed. Soon after that, his family lost everything. Freed from duties to the family business, he heard God's call and became a pastor/teacher. In his first church, on England's coast, people said smuggling was the main occupation. So he saw both sides of the need for holiness – the danger of crass and habitual sins like smuggling and the danger of pleasant sins like cold religion. Slowly he became a champion of holiness and growth in grace.
But a true desire for grace is more than concern about sin. It is also a desire for Christ. It can start with a desire for peace – peace within, peace from all our troubles. Then we see that Jesus is the Prince of Peace.
We may desire peace, but the true believer desires Jesus who brings peace. Jesus is our friend – and friends have a relationship. He is the good shepherd. He cares for us as he knows us and we are known by him.
Jesus says, "If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." And again, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 15:5, 10:10).
The Bible says that Jesus is the author of our holiness, our growth in grace. Hebrews 12:1 says Jesus is "the author and perfecter of our faith." The term for author is ajrchgov, literally first leader or chief leader. It's translated as champion, author, leader or pioneer.
Jesus is the author of salvation first because he lived a perfectly faithful human life. He was faithful in life and faithful in death until he was crowned with glory and honor. Jesus is our hero because of his teaching, his kindness and his miracles.
He is the author of our salvation because he entered combat against our great foe Satan and defeated him. Paradoxically, he defeated Satan by allowing the powers of evil to slay him: "He suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone… By his death [he destroyed] him who holds the power of death." As Jesus died, our sin was laid upon him.
But by bearing our sin, Jesus broke sin's power and defeated Satan. Satan's one valid point is that we deserve to die for sins. But now that Jesus bore the judgment, Satan cannot say anything more. We are free. Jesus is the author of our salvation because he cleared the path, blazed the trail to heaven.
But Jesus is also the perfecter of the faith. The Greek word (teleiwthv) means he brings us to maturity, to completion, to the goal he designed for us. So Jesus does two things: 1) he clears the path to life and 2) he works in us to see that we take that path.
He's not like a parent or coach who stands outside the pool shouting, "Swim." He is in the water with us. He is like a father putting his hand under his child when that hand is needed. So he perfects our faith.
Scripture says, "Christ Jesus is our righteousness, holiness and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). 1
3. The fruit of a life of grace.
If Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith, we can no longer "go on sinning" (Romans 6:1-2). We have died to sin as a life-governing principle; we can't live in it any longer. The logic: Christ died to sin.
We died with Christ. Therefore we died to sin. What does that mean? We sin on occasion, but not
constantly. Habitual sin, unrepentant sin is not the norm. 2
We still sin, but we aren't enslaved by it. We no longer belong to that group, that class or type of person, who is ruled or governed by sin. We're people who have made a life-style change but don't stick with it all the time. What analogy? We're like people who stopped smoking but still light up a cigar occasionally. We're like vegetarians who still eat a cheeseburger once in a while because it tastes so good.
These are strictly analogies. I'm not taking a moral stand on cheeseburgers or cigars (harvesters kill more animals than slaughterhouses). The point is people can make a fundamental change and yet not stick with it all the time. So it is with us.
We don't always sense the progress. Near the end of life, Paul still called himself "the chief of sinners".
(1 Timothy 1:15). Our own sin still looks large and painful to us. But it's a sign of progress even to see it and lament it.
When 40/64 closed in 2008, I had the normal concern about lost time and a "dark" concern: my impatience with bad drivers and traffic jams. I thought, "Maybe now I'll develop patience as a driver! I have twelve months to learn to relax, listen to music and books on CD.” I did listen to books, but I never really relaxed. On my last commute on the side roads, I took me thirty minutes to go four miles. I sat and fumed at the traffic and fumed at myself for fuming: "I have not made one shred of progress this year and I just lost my last chance." But at least I care about it. OK, I care but fail. Is there hope? Yes, God gives us means or paths of grace.
4. The means or paths of grace. 3
Hebrews 13:9 says, "It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace." The means of grace are instruments that God uses to convert and bless people, They fall into two broad categories: the public and the private. The private are: prayer, reading of Scripture, meditation on Scripture, and self-examination.
The public are: worship, common prayer, sacraments and the ministry of the word. It makes us strong to give God the glory He deserves, in confessions and songs. Public worship is mentioned in Acts 2:46, 3:1, 11; 5:11, 20-21, 25, 42. To celebrate God's grace together can be a powerful thing.
These are the means of grace. The Bible is "the word of [God's] grace" (Acts 20:32). We pray to the "throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16). God gives gifts to his people so that we all grow into maturity (Ephesians 4:7-12, 1 Peter 4:10).
When I talk to a Christian who is struggling, it is all but invariable that they are failing to lay hold of God's means of grace, the regular paths of grace. We can't cover all in one day, so I will focus on two: Scripture and community.
1a. Private reading of Scripture
When people start to date someone they find interesting, they observe everything. A woman, so my wife says, notices a man's clothes, shoes, hair, manners, fragrance, hands, even his fingernails. What do the details say? We listen carefully for comments that reveal warmth, humor, romantic interest. We should start to study a passage of the Bible by reading it as if romancing the text. Do you? Let me ask some diagnostic questions:
Do you ever fall behind on a devotional plan (for example, reading the Bible in a year?) and "speed read" fifty chapters to catch up?
Have you ever read a Christian book, come to a block scripture quotation, and skipped it to get back to the thoughts of the author?
Do you "zone out" when the pastor reads Scripture and wake up for the introductory illustration?
Do you ever tear through the Bible to find a verse to slap on someone?
In case you're wondering, it's not good to say "yes" to these questions. On the other hand: How often do you say, "I never noticed that before?" Do you ever pick up another translation of the Bible to see how it renders a passage? Do you ever jot notes or make mental note of questions about the Bible? These are all good.
Above all, when you read the Bible, let it read you. Pray "Lord speak to me. Your word is different from other books. I don't want to read skeptically, I want to read with a humble and teachable spirit.
Reveal my sin, my duty. Show me Yourself."
If you don't read the Bible much, start with Psalms, gospels or epistles. Read slowly, expectantly. Get a study Bible to clear up difficult verses. Pray: “Lord, teach me about Yourself. Rebuke me, give me strength or courage according to my need." You can learn from your teachers, but you need to read quietly, meditatively and compare your ideas and habits to Scripture. Reading is also important for teachers, pastors, leaders, anyone who leads others. You can get in the habit of reading functionally – for what you will tell others. That's OK, but you also need to readpersonally first.
1b. Public ministry of the word
It's also important to attend to the preaching and teaching of Scripture. Acts says the early church "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching." The first Christians "continued to meet together in the temple courts" (2:42, 46). Acts mentions the apostles' teaching ten times in Act 1-5 2:14-36, 42-46 3:12-26; 4:2, 18, 33, 5:21-28, 42. This was vital to the early church and should be for us, too.
We commit to the apostles' teaching when we read the Bible privately. But God also appointed pastors and teachers to strengthen the church. They must "work hard" in the Word and declare it "in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4).
John Piper sees a paradox here: On one hand, the church needs its pastors. God appointed them as a means of grace to instruct, exhort, and encourage. On the other hand, the only way a pastor can really help is by pointing people away from himself so the people depend on God, not the pastor.
Second means of grace – Christian community
Acts 2:42 says the first Christians "devoted themselves… to the breaking of bread [shared meals] and to prayer." A little later, "They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts" (2:46). Further, "They lifted their voices together to God" in prayer (4:24, 1:14). The disciples often met to share meals and to pray.
Shared meals and prayers are important because we laugh, tell stories, become friends, and share burdens over meals. We discover what gifts we do and do not have. We learn how we fit into our team. Real care and growth come this way.
The first Christians also met in small groups. They "broke bread in their homes and ate together." As they formed deep relationships, life was good. "Everyone was filled with awe" and all were "praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people" (2:42, 47).
Relationships aren't magical. We don't grow simply because we have strong relationships, we need strong, constructive relationships. Bad friends drag us down. "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Corinthians 15:33). Good friends build us up. Proverbs 13:20 says, "He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm."
True friends correct us when necessary. Proverbs says when a friend corrects us, we should give thanks, for they have our good at heart. "Wounds from a friend can be trusted" and "the pleasantness of a friend springs from his earnest counsel" (Proverbs 27:6, 9). Again: "Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still" (Proverbs 9:9).
Some see this better than others. Baby boomers tend to be individualists. The term for our default approach to life is "Expressive individualism." That is, we place less value on duty and sacrifice for others. We resist – or think we resist - conformity and respectability. We rebel against our peer group. We feel pressure to behave a certain way, driving a certain car, buy certain houses and clothes. We want to
express our individuality. Our "rebellion" may not be very profound. We buy a mini Cooper and a cobalt watch to set ourselves apart…
But it seems that the high point of expressive individualism is past. Generation X-ers and Millennials are more interested in community. People still want to express their individuality, but they seem quicker to see the value of community.
No generation has it all. Individualists can be quick to do whatever they please. But they are ready to resist the herd when it goes wrong.
A mind for community is bad if we join the wrong one, but it's great if we join the right one. We especially thrive in a Christ-centered church that seeks God and His holiness. We love each other, encourage each other, teach each other. "Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still" (Proverbs 9:9).
Take something like entertainment. How do you know what TV or movies to watch? You can read the critics. I also consult websites, Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, which summarize what dozens of reviewers say. The problem with this: Critics don't judge by our criteria. They think about actors and acting, cinematography, camera angles, editing and creativity. Critics love technica/l excellence and novelty. Very few ask: Does this film promote virtue? Is it edifying? Is God pleased? (Exception: see decentmovies.com)
So we go to a movie the critics like and find ourselves appalled. We go again and it's just as bad, but we've seen if before, so we're less offended. In recent years, entertainment features ever more blood, pain, and death. Horror movies glorify and find thrills in gruesome things. We are alert to the danger of pornography. Rightly so! But we should be alert to entertainment that glorifies violence. The Greek wordfor death is “thanatos”. Today I coin the term thanatography as a parallel to pornography. Thanatography aims to entertain with graphic displays of violence and death.
How can we defeat the problem of evil entertainment? We can do it as a community. God's people should "spur one another on toward love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10:24). We should spur one another to support good entertainment and shun the dreck. We help each other with this. If a friend begins to love thanatography, we can gently ask. "Is this making you a better person?"
But there is much more to community. Worship is richer when we sing together. Sometimes we pray best in groups, over shared needs. We discover our gifts when other people tell us how we blessed them.
Finally, the Bible says we should "encourage one another daily, as long as it is called today." Since every day is "today", we should encourage daily. That is a means of grace because it counters the pressure to give up when we are down. We help each other see blessings so they assure us of the Lord's favor.
Some will say, "I am not an encourager" or "Some people are embarrassed or spoiled by compliments." Forget it! Proper encouragement is God-centered. Besides, God commands it, so you should start doing it, whether you are at ease or not.
The Bible says we should "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord" It says God's power has given us everything we need for godliness. His power shows us our need of grace. He calls us, leads us to Christ. Much of His work is sovereign, mysterious. But much of it is not. His grace sustains our spiritual life. His prior action is decisive. But our actions count, too. So let's make use of the means of grace: prayer, self-examination, and reading of Scripture alone. And let's draw on the church in all its benefits so we stay strong in the love of God.