Make every effort and see to it!

marathon

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Hebrews 12:14-16)

In this passage the writer of Hebrews admonishes God’s people to live together centered on life in God instead of turning aside.  Two decisive verbs capture our attention in this section.

The first of those is “make every effort.” The believers are to make every effort to live in peace together and also to be holy or to be sanctified. As we discussed last week, there is a call to Christian unity in the peace of the Lord that requires effort and hard work. We have to help one another and stand together in the long endurance race of faith. It is not easy because we will grow weary and sometimes are wounded, but that is why we are called to make every effort. This is not contrary to the grace of God but our strength for the effort comes as an overflow of God’s grace.

This unity is fueled and sustained by holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Holiness is essential to unity and we cannot sacrifice holiness on the path to unity. Otherwise, we are not talking about Christian unity but something else. Holiness means that we are increasingly reflecting the presence and character of God in our lives. To become holy means that we are turning away from sin and being increasingly re-formed to look more and more like Jesus. This is a work of God in us by the power of the Holy Spirit that will continue until the day that we are with the Lord face to face.

Holiness requires us to “make every effort”; not that we make ourselves holy, but we make the effort of putting ourselves steadily into the place where God can have His way in us. It is firstly a decision of the will, and secondly action within our lives. This is not opposed to God’s grace, but it is both our response to God’s grace and preparatory to God’s grace having its way in us.

The second of the decisive verbs in this section is “see to it.” “See to what?”, we might ask.

First, see to it that no one in the community falls short of God’s grace. Help one another. Walk together. Encourage one another. Correct one another. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. We are not in this for our own growth alone, but for serving one another as the body of Christ. This is why Paul the Apostle writes to the Philippians:

“if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:1-4)

Just as the Apostle Paul finds joy as he sees the believers live in such tangible unity and care for one another, so, too, the writer of Hebrews calls them to see to it that God’s grace makes its way into each and every one of their lives together.

Secondly, they are to see to it that no one gets off course through sexual immorality or godlessness. Esau is given as an example of someone who just loses their way through godless living, eventually losing the birthright and blessing of God – something that he could not get back.

Brothers and sisters, if we see someone losing their way in sin, we need to gently, but decisively, address it. The writer calls out sexual sin because it was pervasive in the culture of the day but also because it is one of the clearest and most basic manifestations of a life that is at odds with God’s way. This does not mean that sexual sin is weighted as worse in the grand sense, but it is a sign that the same sort of godlessness decried in Esau is happening in us. We should not approach one another with condescending judgmentalism but with humility and grace. The goal of addressing such sin is not condemnation but encouragement and the strengthening of God’s grace in our lives matched by growth in holiness throughout the community.

At its heart these verses call us not to walk away from the essential faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 15 say see “that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many,” which is a reference not to bitterness but to idolatry – a turning away from God – that gripped God’s people during the Exodus. The warning in these verses calls us to stay on course with God and not to lose our way through sin. Make every effort…see to it!

[This is excerpted from my message, “Make Every Effort,” on Hebrews 12:14-29.]

3 Simple Practices to Help us Grow to Look Like Jesus

hands folded

This past Sunday at Eastbrook I preached on the sufficiency of Christ from Hebrews 10:1-18 in a message entitled “Sufficient.” You can view that message below or here. Near the end of the message, I reflected on what the sufficiency of Christ means for us.

One of the most important aspects of Christ’s sufficient work is described in Hebrews 10:14:

For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

We are being made holy, or divinely cleansed from top to bottom through the sufficient work of Christ. We cannot do this ourselves, but Jesus does it. He takes our lives in His hands and transforms us to become more like Him, which is essentially what it means to be made holy.

Now, this requires us to yield our lives to Him. We do this once to begin the journey, something some of us may describe as “giving our life to Christ” or “being born again” or such things. That is so important, but it is also merely the beginning of the journey with Christ. To use Paul’s language, we are justified by faith in Christ, but we most also be sanctified in Christ. We are sanctified or made holy in an ongoing way.

Let me share three simple practices I have found helpful for this in my own life. The first is to take some time every year to dedicate our lives and our calendar to God. Since I have been in college it has been my practice to take some time around the new year—an hour, a day, or more—to annually consecrate my life to God. Consecration simply means that we are setting our lives apart for God’s use. So, I will lay out before God my calendar, my goals, my relationships, and every area of my life so that He can have His way in me. I am basically saying, “Lord, I want to become more like Jesus—more holy—through you this year.”

Along with this is the second practice of daily consecration to the Lord. Many people talk about having a “quiet time” with God each day. This is basically our time of being still and in solitude with God, as Jesus did in the Gospels. What I will do is spend time reading Scripture, praying, and journaling before then opening my calendar for the day and dedication my day to God. I will say something like this, “Lord, I give you each of these appointments and ask that You would have Your way in them. I know that you may want to interrupt my day, and I yield to You for that. Help me to pay attention to Your interruptions. Use me for Your glory and shape me to be more like Jesus through this day.”

A third practice is moment by moment consecration. We are not just meant to dedicate our lives to God once in a lifetime or once a year or once per day. Instead, we are invited to walk with God through our days. In this practice, we return in our thoughts regularly to God, letting Him know that we are His and He can have His way in us. I often do this by praying the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “let Your kingdom come and let Your will be done” in me. When I experience joy in my day, I will return in my inner life to God and express gratitude to God for His good gifts. When I experience trouble or tension in my day, I return in my thoughts to God, asking Him to make me more holy through this experience or to use me to bring His goodness, grace, and truth into the circumstances.

Annually, daily, and moment-by-moment consecration to God is an important overflow of God’s grace in our lives. Obviously, this is not something that we do to win God’s favor or to make ourselves right with God. Only Jesus does that through His once-for-all sufficient sacrifice. However, in response to the costly gift of grace in Christ, we yield our lives to God so that Christ’s work might have its way in us “who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).

Roots: Looking Back and Reaching Forward

 

This coming weekend at Eastbrook Church we begin a new preaching series entitled “Roots: Looking Back and Reaching Forward.” This series is the second of a three-part series related to our 40th anniversary as a church, following on our series, “Power in Prayer.” This is a series celebrating our legacy as a church, and also recalibrating as we head into the future together. We will look back at what God has done in our midst at Eastbrook, while also looking forward to what God is calling us into as a church.

September 7/8 – “Activated by the Holy Spirit”

September 14/15 – “Truly Community”

September 21/22 – “Growing Disciples”

September 28/29 – “Sacrificial Generosity”

October 4/5 – “Worship in the Beauty of Holiness”

Exemplary Lives of Renewed Pastors

Richard Baxter.jpgIn reading J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness some time ago, I came across this moving quotation from Richard Baxter about the need for pastors to attend to their own lives in ministry. Baxter was an interesting figure, best known for his writing of that classic of pastoral practice, The Reformed Pastor.

Just a quick note that the term ‘reformed’ for Baxter does not merely refer to the reformed theological tradition, but also to the pursuit of a thoroughly reformed life before God. A more easily understood title for that book today might be “The Renewed Pastor.” I am confident that more than a few readers might agree with me that what we need today, no less than in Baxter’s day, is renewed pastors whose lives are exemplary and saturated with the character of Christ.

Take heed to yourselves, lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others….be also careful that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise, and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study, before you preach them to others….watch therefore over your own hearts: keep out lusts and passions, and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith, and love, and zeal; be much at home, and much with God…take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine…lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues….we must study as hard how to live well, as how to preach well.

This is a challenging and good word to those of us who serve the Lord and His church in pastoral ministry. Baxter draws attention to the key topics: the steadiness in our exercise of faith, the personal response to the message we preach to others, dealing with the desires and longings within our own hearts, our zeal in ministry, and our everyday living for God. There is hardly any part of our lives to which Baxter fails to call attention. God forbid that we should take lightly our call and the example which we must set as servants of Christ in His body!

With confidence, Paul could say these words to one of his congregations: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Pastor, I ask myself and invite you to join me in considering whether we can we offer the same confident statement to our people from our own lives. With a tip of my hat to E. M. Bounds, I must say that what we need today as pastors is not primarily more activity in the church, or more impact in the social arena, or better programs, or more-updated models of ministry. No. For all the good that those things can offer, they are not the primary necessity in pastoral ministry today or in any other era. Our primary need for pastoral ministry in today’s church is that humble servants of Christ will lay down their lives daily in order to be made completely new and alive to God in Christ. May God transform us as pastors into examples others can follow for His glory.

The Apostle James’ words come to mind:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).

Recovering Holiness

HolinessAs I continue to reflect on the nature of pastoral ministry, ministry in the North American evangelical church, and questions of ministry integrity, I find myself returning often to the topic of holiness. Even writing the word holiness makes me feel a little bit “old school.” However, if I hold the tension of that uncomfortable feeling for a bit, I cannot help but think we may need to be a little “old school” right now on this issue.

So, I turned to a voice from an earlier time, J. C. Ryle, whose classic book Holiness has been highly regarded for years, with pastors like J. I. Packer and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones urging Christians to read it. Let me share a brief excerpt from his introduction to this book, which, I believe, puts some perspective on where we stand today in North American Christianity.

I’ve had a deep conviction for many years that practical holiness and entire self-consciousness to God are not sufficiently attended to by modern Christians in this country. Politics, or controversy, or party spirit, or worldliness have eaten out the heart of lively piety in too many of us. The subject of personal godliness has fallen sadly into the background. The standard of living has become painfully low in many quarters. Immense importance of “adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour” (Titus 2:10), and making it lovely and beautiful by our daily habits and tempers, has been far too much overlooked. Worldly people sometimes complain with reason that “religious” persons, so-called, are not so amiable, and unselfish, and good-natured, as others who make no profession of religion. Yet sanctification, in its place in proportion, is quite as important as justification. Sound Protestant and evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt. It is my firm impression that we want a thorough revival about scriptural holiness, and I am deeply thankful that attention is being directed to the point.

As Ryle continues his introduction, he outlines a series of issues related to holiness, some of which apply to our own day and some of which seem more bound to his own time. It is, however, his first point that I find particularly relevant to our own context. In the midst of our heavy emphasis on grace in North American Christianity, we have at times veered off into various versions of antinomianism, where there is no place – or at least disregard – for God’s law and obedience. As with the work of Dallas Willard, sometimes simplified in the writings of John Ortberg, we find Ryle grappling with the tension between faith and work, between earning God’s favor and application of effort to honor God. On the subject of holiness, he writes:

That faith in Christ is the root of all holiness; that the first step towards a holy life is to believe on Christ; that until we believe we have not a jot of holiness; that union with Christ by faith is the secret of both beginning to be holy and continuing holy; that the life that we live in the flesh, we must live by the faith of the Son of God; that faith purifies the heart; that faith is the victory which overcomes the world; that by faith the elders obtain a good report – all these are truths which no well-instructed Christian will ever think of denying. But surely the Scriptures teach us that in following holiness the true Christian needs personal exertion and work as well as faith….Justifying faith is a grace that “worketh not,” but simply trusts, rests, and leans on Christ (Rom. 4:5). Sanctifying faith is a grace of which the very life is action: it “worketh by love,” and, like a mainspring, moves the whole inward man (Gal. 5:6).

What Ryle emphasizes, and we rightly need to recover, is the emphatic coupling of justifying grace with sanctifying grace. We need to recover the truth that our unearned salvation by grace through faith in Christ overflows into a holy life strenuously lived as worship unto the Lord through obedience. I cannot help but think that one of the things we most need to recover today in North American Christianity is holiness.