A sermon from January 18, 2015
It is a melancholy reflection upon human nature that we have, as the Apostle expresses it elsewhere, to be “shut up” to all the mercies of God. If we could evade them, notwithstanding their freeness and their worth, we would. How do most of us attain to any faith in Providence? Is it not by proving, through numberless experiments, that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps? Is it not by coming, again and again, to the limit of our resources, and being compelled to feel that unless there is a wisdom and a love at work on our behalf, immeasurably wiser and more benignant than our own, life is a moral chaos? How, above all, do we come to any faith in redemption? to any abiding trust in Jesus Christ as the Saviour of our souls? Is it not by this same way of despair? Is it not by the profound consciousness that in ourselves there is no answer to the question, How shall man be just with God? and that the answer must be sought in Him? Is it not by failure, by defeat, by deep disappointments, by ominous forebodings hardening into the awful certainty that we cannot with our own resources make ourselves good men—is it not by experiences like these that we are led to the Cross? This principle has many other illustrations in human life, and every one of them is something to our discredit. They all mean that only desperation opens our eyes to God’s love. We do not heartily own Him as the author of life and health, unless He has raised us from sickness after the doctor had given us up. We do not acknowledge His paternal guidance of our life, unless in some sudden peril, or some impending disaster, He provides an unexpected deliverance. We do not confess that salvation is of the Lord, till our very soul has been convinced that in it there dwells no good thing. Happy are those who are taught, even by despair, to set their hope in God; and who, when they learn this lesson once, learn it, like St. Paul, once for all…. Faith and hope like those which burn through this Epistle were well worth purchasing, even at such a price; they were blessings so valuable that the love of God did not shrink from reducing Paul to despair that he might be compelled to grasp them. Let us believe when such trials come into our lives—when we are weighed down exceedingly, beyond our strength, and are in darkness without light, in a valley of the shadow of death with no outlet—that God is not dealing with us cruelly or at random, but shutting us up to an experience of His love which we have hitherto declined. “After two days will He revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live before Him.”
Expositor’s Bible, 2 Corinthians, pp. 25-26, “Faith Born of Despair”
I am here at the ACBC Conference in Indianapolis. The opening plenary session was by Heath Lambert. He spoke on 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and discussed grace and necessity of biblical counseling. He entitled the message “The Sufficiency of God’s Grace for Counseling”.
He began by speaking of the defining element of Biblical Counseling. While sufficiency of Scripture is a fundamental aspect Biblical Counseling, he suggested that the sufficiency of God’s grace was The Fundamental Element of Biblical Counseling.
We do not know the precise nature of the “thorn” Paul suffered. And even though we don’t know the nature of the thorn, we do know the reason, to prevent pride, to keep Paul humble. We indeed will all suffer pain, we will all suffer thorns: “Life is thorny”.
Paul has received this particular thorn (along with a great many other graces”).
Paul prays relief from the pain. God responds by providing Paul grace. God’s grace included leaving Paul in sorrow.
What then is grace? It is unmerited favor, but it is is more.
I. Grace is not the removal of pain.
Three times Paul pled for the removal of the thorn, and three times God refused. Three times I pled, BUT God ….
Sometimes problems remain broken; sometimes problems do not resolve. If we do not understand 2 Corinthians 12 we can wrongly conclude that God is not gracious.
II. Grace is received in the midst of pain.
God gave Paul the power to endure the pain Sometimes we desire pain relief more than grace. But grace is what we experience we feel we cannot take another step.
III. You only know this grace when you are weak AND you admit that you are weak.
We easily and often believe relief is more important than righteousness. Our trouble is that we are beset with self-righteousness. Self-righteousness can only be shattered by afflictions.
We receive the necessary grace only when we both suffer & boast in our weakness, “I will boast of nothing but my weakness.”
IV. None of this is about me; it is all and only about Christ
True grace makes me concern only about Christ.
It is better to be conformed to Christ than to be at ease. My response to affliction depends upon whether I wish to be first.
This leads to a true test of whether I am a Christian: What do I do when faced with suffering? I cannot know whether I am a Christian until I am afflicted. One may love the gift more than the giver: since all good things come ultimately from God, I may love God only because I love what he gives.
Grace takes place when God in his favors leads one into a season of pain then sustains one in it.
God’s grace is sufficient for counseling, because it is sufficient for our pain.
There is a criticism of Biblical Counseling: That we withhold help from people in need. Often this criticism lies that we refuse medical help. That is never true: Biblical Counseling is never contrary to medical help (nor medicine. ACBC only speaks poorly of medicine when the trouble is not medical.)
One problem with this criticism is the implicit belief that grace always equals relief. This is not so.
First, all non-biblical methods must fail. Despite the greatest medical care, one will eventually die. The greatest counsel of any sort (even biblical) may not bring about relief (and all relief will be short term).
But grace is guaranteed. Even when everything fails, grace is sufficient and guaranteed.
How do we receive grace? Paul receive a word. God’s grace is sufficient. Paul didn’t know how to receive this grace until he received this word. The Scripture is sufficient for counseling, because the Scripture permits us access to grace.
A friend of Newton, nearing death, asked him to explain 2 Corinthians 5:10, which states that we will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Newton realized his friend was not merely concerned with an exegetically difficult text: His friend was really concerned with the question of Judgment Day: How will not be put to shame if we are going to still be judged for our sins — even if they are forgiven? Is Christ going to tell everyone every sin I have ever committed? If Christ does this, how will I live?
If Newton merely answered the exegetical question without looking to the heart which underlay that question, he would not have comforted the heart of a friend who was nearing death.
Therefore, Newton begins with (1) an acknowledgement that his friend is nearing death; and (2) some words of comfort:
MY heart congratulates you. What changes and events many in younger life may be reserved to see, who can tell? but your pilgrimage is nearly finished. You stand upon the river’s brink, with the city full in view, waiting and wishing for the appointed hour: you need not be anxious concerning your passage; for every circumstance attending it is already adjusted by Infinite Wisdom and Love, and the King himself will be ready to receive you.
Newton thus first strikes at the heart of the question: Does God really love me? The letter ultimately concerns assurance: Assurance not only of bare salvation, but assurance of welcome? Will I make it to Heaven and then be put to shame?
Newton now comes to state the issue. Notice how he phrases the issue in a willingness to help. Pastoral work can be taxing, and it is easy to not want to respond to one-more question. Moreover, many people think they are intruding or burdening their pastor by asking questions:
While you continue here, I am glad to hear from you, and should be glad to contribute in any way or degree to your satisfaction, or even to shew my willingness, if I can do no more. I can propose little more than the latter, by offering my thoughts on the subject you propose from 2 Cor. 5:10, and the apparent difficulty of understanding that passage in full harmony with the many texts which seem expressly to assert, that the sins of believers are so forgiven as to be remembered no more.
Notice how Newton phrases the question: The difficulty here is that 2 Corinthians 5:10 does not easily harmonize with other passages.
The next paragraph concerns the problem of textual difficulties at all. This understanding of how to handle a text fits with any number of exegetically difficult passages.
2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)
18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
I lament that many Christians today think of the afterlife more in line with Plato than with Jesus or Paul. Some devout Christians are captured with a vision that when they die, they will float about heaven like Caspar the friendly ghost, play volleyball with the angels on the clouds, and glide between stars like a mannequin in outer space. Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology
That sounds dreadful, an eternity as an idea! I love the sound of wind, the feel of rain, the smell of salt as the ocean meets the shore. Thank God that he has not left us without a hope that we will never know the touch of an other. Thomas touched Jesus. Jesus ate bread and fish. A life without death is a great blessing; a life without a body, hideous.
This is perhaps the most joyous section of all Scripture:
1 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. [Without a body] 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened-not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed [by an uncorruptible body], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 2 Corinthians 5:1-5
The invisibility of God: Here is an iron-clad complaint of empiricism: only that which can be seen or determined therefrom is real. However Christians celebrate the invisibility of God:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.
This of course is based in part on 1 Timothy 1:17 (ESV) “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Where then is God hiding? It is an interesting thing to see that the God of Scripture claims to hide in plain sight. For example, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts all that has taken place for Israel. He tells the people that despite all that they have experienced, they still do not understand:
2 And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: “You have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 3 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, and those great wonders. 4 But to this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. 5 I have led you forty years in the wilderness. Your clothes have not worn out on you, and your sandals have not worn off your feet. ….”
Deuteronomy 29:2–5 (ESV)
One wonders what story they told themselves which made sense of what they experienced. This run runs throughout Scripture. For example, the disciples had seen Jesus feed thousands with next to nothing, yet they did not see the miracle. For shortly thereafter, they see Jesus walk on the water and yet they cannot understand what is happening:
51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Mark 6:51–52 (ESV)
When look to other passages, we can see that God himself takes credit for his invisibility; even in the most obvious places. Thus, after Jesus rises from the dead, he walks along with some disciples who cannot recognize him:
15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Luke 24:15–16 (ESV)
Jesus even goes so far as to state a purpose of his work is to purposefully blind some to the truth while proclaiming it:
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
Mark 4:10–12 (ESV). That does not mean that we are not culpable; it is equally our own desire for blindness which keeps are our eyes closed:
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
Romans 1:18 (ESV).
This blindness is taken away by the Gospel, alone. The light is bright enough to be seen; it is the willful and supernatural blindness which causes the sorrow:
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
2 Corinthians 4:3–4 (ESV)
It is only the gracious act of God which reveals his truth:
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
Matthew 11:25-26 (ESV)
The invisibility of God does not lie in his absence but in the hardness of our heart, the malice of the Devil and the will of God.
The Bible speaks of being as being profoundly concerned with shame and honor. Jesus repeatedly warns against seeking glory from mere human beings, but rather to only seek glory which comes from God. In John, Jesus even defines true faith as being the opposite of seeking glory from human beings:
John 5:44 (ESV)
44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?
The great promise of the Christian life is glory:
1 Peter 1:6–7 (ESV)
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Even our gravest sorrows will be turned to glory:
2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (ESV)
16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
But we are also told that such thinking is outdated. Yes, in the ancient world and in some “traditional” societies shame and honor matter, but we moderns are not bound by such considerations.
It turns out, that as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, the Bible is an up-to-date book, because this concern about shame and honor, the need for glory to cover up our nakedness, the weakness of us all runs the Internet.
Jon Ronson writes in the New York Times of the brutality of Internet shaming, of how the need to get glory from human beings matters more than all else — and that losing such honor will ruin ones life:
Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.
It is a great article, which you would do well to read.
As a Christian with the responsibility to speak in public, I noted that this point will be my point, because there are positions which I do and must take. No matter how carefully I explain that I hold no malice toward anyone because of their ethics, it is considered a place beyond the pale to hold such positions. It is wrong and even criminal to hold that Christians are not permitted to do certain things. To call such things “sin” is hateful — which is surely strange because the people who take the greatest offense deny the existence of sin.
In the end it is honor and shame which drive our hearts.