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resolved: student ministries went to Camp Barakel for winter retreat two weekends ago. On the drive north Friday evening, it started to snow and it didn’t stop until a foot of fresh snow had fallen. It was a wet, heavy snow that knocked out power across the northeast Lower Pennisula. The storm caused camp to lose power early Saturday morning and that, in turn, caused our winter retreat to be cut short because they could not heat the cabins in the near zero temperatures. But in all of the chaos of a Michigan blizzard and the changing retreat plans, I stepped outside the back of the East Side dining hall and was confronted with a beautiful sight. Green pines and tall brown oaks were totally white. It looked as if every tree and its branches were not real trees, but were made completely of snow. An iPhone camera just does not do it justice.
The chills that went up my back were not from the cold. It was a powerful reminder of the gospel-pointing beauty of God’s snow in Isaiah 1.18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Because of the blood Jesus shed on the cross, the guilt of the sins of God’s people is effectively cleansed. But not only that, as Alec Motyer comments, “the Lord’s promise is not only to deal with the stain of sin but with the nature from which it springs.” That’s why the picture above was simply a gospel-pointing reminder. The trees were still there under all that snow… they were covered, but they were still trees. But if anyone is in Christ Jesus, they are a new creations (2 Corinthians 5.17). Jesus didn’t just cover our sins, He gave us new life in Him. Oh the powerful blood of our glorious Savior! As winter gives way to spring, may we remember the new life that springs forth in those who are in Christ. The cold grip in which death once held us is broken. Though our sins were like scarlet, they are white as snow.
“God is the ultimate focus of Christ’s death on the cross. Yes, Jesus died for sins and for the unrighteous, but ultimately Jesus died for God and his glory. For when Christ brings us to God, he brings us into a right relationship with God. It’s as if the universe is set back where it should be – a relationship in which he is the center and we orbit around him in a safe proximity and nearness, a relationship in which his glory is the point and we find our joy and meaning in being a display of his worth rather than our own.”
~ Michael Lawrence, It Is Well, 215
When we find our joy and meaning in living as “a display of his worth rather than our own”, we do what we were created to do. We find ultimate joy when we decrease and He increases because He is the ultimate focus of everything. Though everything around us and everything within us tells us to put ourselves on display for all to see, Christ died so we could live for Our Father and His glory. When He is the center, everything is as it should be… even when thinking about the ultimate purpose of the cross.
“Jesus’ body bore our sins on the tree, and it was a horrible, bloody, fatal, and physical reality. The New Testament tells us this to underscore the extent of the servant’s service on our behalf (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Not only did he take the form of a man and humble himself to wear the garb of a servant, but he also became obedient. He even became obedient unto the ghastly death of the cross for our sakes. We see that the whole point was to emphasize how full, complete, and extensive was the servant’s obedience to the Father on our behalf. Even when his body is marred beyond human semblance, he bows himself down and says, “For the sake of the salvation of sinners, my Father, let your will be done.”
~ Sinclair Ferguson; Christ, the Sin-Bearer, in Atonement, 113-114
Bono, the frontman of U2, wrote an introduction to a book containing a selection of Psalms. It isn’t extraordinarily eye-opening, nor extraordinarily helpful either. However, there is one section that brought me to worship. In speaking of a song U2 wrote called “40″, he says:
“Psalm 40 is interesting in that it suggests a time when… love will replace the very strict law of Moses (i.e. fulfill them). I love that thought. David, who committed some of the most selfish as well as selfless acts, was depending on it. That the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries used to shock me; now it is a great source of comfort.”
Now, this isn’t the time to begin debating whether Bono is saved or not. Only God, and maybe Bono, know that. We need to hear that last line. We need to see what gets a person to that point. From shock to awestruck wonder. From incredulity to joy. From elder brother to the younger. It comes from a true experience of grace. You know how he can go from shock to comfort if you have come to taste and see God’s grace. I don’t know about you, but I am praising God this morning for Jesus Christ. He fulfilled so that huslters, murderers, cowards, adulterers and mercenaries just like me can be adopted as God’s children rather than bear just and holy wrath as His enemies. I get forgiveness because Christ bore the penalty for my sin in his body. He paid it all, once for all, and I get grace and mercy and love. He is not known to me only as God, the Most High, He is also God, my Father, because of Jesus. Easter 2010 has passed, but the joy and comfort that God has justified sinners in Christ alone, not based on anything they have done or ever will do, is simply amazing. The fact that the Bible is full of filthy sinners is not a shock. That God killed his only Son for their sin instead of them is.
There are many voices claiming to know the secret to being effective and fruitful. Out of all of the ones clamoring to be heard, I want to remember the voice of Peter. In 2 Peter 1:5-9, he writes, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”
The secret to being effective and fruitful is not some treasure waiting to be unearthed by the next great writer or preacher. It is not about Getting Things Done, becoming better organized, reading many books, getting more degrees, or unleashing my potential. Peter says that effectiveness and fruitfulness come from the qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. These qualities protect us from becoming ineffective and unfruitful followers of Jesus.
But verse 9 is the key… if you lack these qualities, it is not because you do not try hard enough or do not have enough will power. It is because you have forgotten that your sins have been washed away by the blood of the cross. The first step in making these protective qualities a reality in your life is knowing that they have already been given to you by His power (verse 3) and never forgetting the cross (verse 9). The first step is a humble, thankful remembering of the cross.
“Love begets a likeness between the mind loving and the object beloved….. A mind filled with a love of Christ crucified … will be changed into his image and likeness.”
~ John Owen, The Holy Spirit
In conclusion of the series (and hopefully not the fighting of sin!), we have heard a call from our guides to deepen our knowledge of what Christ accomplished in salvation, that true repentance is turning from sin and to Christ, that fighting sin is a continual necessity and that there is a mean streak to the Christian life that focuses on the sinful deeds of our own flesh. However, Owen reminds us that all is for naught in the fight against sin if there is no love for Christ. Ultimately, loving Christ will help us fight sin on a daily basis, not because it will simply help us defeat temptation, but because it will actually change us more and more into Christ’s “image and likeness”… an image and likeness that was holy, sinless and one that glorified and still glorifies God every single moment. Owen leaves us to think about the question Pastor Dan Cummings used to ask, “What do you love?”
“There is a mean streak in the Christian life. There is a violence. There is a militancy. But it is exactly the opposite of selfish violence against people. It is a violence against the “flesh” or against “the deeds of the body” – our flesh and our body. The Christian is not mean to others. He is mean to his own sinfulness – his own flesh… So to put to death the deeds of the body (as Romans 8:13 says) “by the Spirit” we must set our minds on “the things of the Spirit,” which we now see means: set your mind on the word of God in scripture. What makes this ring so true is the connection with Ephesians 6:17 where Paul says in our battle against evil we must “take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
~ John Piper, How To Kill Sin-Part 3
The great thing that Piper leads us to see is that the glory of God in Jesus Christ is at stake in our daily, necessary and continual action of fighting and “killing sin”. He says, “Jesus is glorified when we kill sin by the Spirit”. Now, we hear that we live to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but sometimes putting the ‘how’ into words is difficult. The fighting of sin on a daily basis, and not only fighting but also killing it, is not just a little triumph in a Christian’s life, but one that glorifies Jesus. This is a way we can daily live for His glory, not through our own will power, but by setting our minds on the Word of God and weilding The Sword against our flesh!
“Be always at it, cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. He who ceases from this duty lets go all endeavors after holiness… Sin will not die, unless it be constantly weakened. Spare it, and it will heal its wounds and recover its strength. We must continually watch against the operation of this principle of sin; in our duties, in our calling, in conversation, in retirement, in our straits, in our enjoyments and in all that we do. If we are negligent on any occasion, we shall suffer by it; every mistake, every neglect is perilous.”
~ John Owen, Works, Vol. 3
In our fighting of sin, we not only need to grow in the knowledge of the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ and to know that repetance requires both a turning away and a turning to, but also that the fight against sin is a continuous activity. Most people know it is a necessity, but we must also realize it is a continual necessity… “cease not a day from this work.” Our culture and the busyness of our lives seem to choke out any striving towards the constant killing of sin. It is not that we don’t ever kill sin, but that we don’t do it unceasingly. So how does Owen encourage us instead of shaming us? He says neglecting to kill sin is disastrous… it is no small matter! He holds out two options: kill sin or be killed. And I do not believe he overstates the matter one iota.
“Remember that the man who truly repents is never satisfied with his own repentance. We can no more repent perfectly than we can live perfectly. However pure our tears, there will always be some dirt in them; there will be something to be repented of even in our best repentance. But listen! To repent is to change your mind about sin, and Christ, and all the great things of God. There is sorrow implied in this; but the main point is the turning of the heart from sin to Christ. If there be this turning, you have the essence of true repentance, even though no alarm and no despair should ever cast their shadow upon your mind.”
Charles Spurgeon, All Of Grace
Fighting sin requires repentance, but Spurgeon rightly reminds that repentance requires turning… and turning not just from sin, but to Christ. Being sorry for sin and wanting to not do it anymore is not true repentance until you also turn to Christ and look to His cross.
I was re-reading a portion of The Prodigal God by Tim Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He writes a great paragraph that has a focusing effect as we begin another week of being incrementally transformed into the image of Christ, fighting sin and finding our delight in God. He writes,
“All change comes from deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding creates in your heart. Faith in the gospel re-structures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.”
If we really want to fight sin without constantly being in the “Give in, Repent, Repeat” cycle… we need a change of heart that comes from a deepening of our knowledge of what Christ’s salvation of His people actually accomplished.