Category Archives: Christian Life

God’s Promises are His Insurance Office

Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) writes in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment about how to claim the promises of God as your own in order to develop contentment. He says the covenant of grace in general and the promises of God in particular are like “a great insurance office for the saints.”

Here is an insurance office indeed, a great insurance office for the saints, at which they are not charged, except in the exercising of grace, for they may go to this insurance office to insure everything that they venture, either to have the thing itself, or to be paid for it. In an insurance office you cannot be sure to have the very goods that you insured, but if they are lost the insurers pledge themselves to make it good to you. And this covenant of grace that God has made with his people is God’s insurance office, and the saints in all their fears may and ought to go to the covenant to insure all things, to insure their wealth and to insure their lives… It is a special sign of true grace in any soul, that when any affliction befalls him, in a kind of natural way he repairs immediately to the covenant… If you find that your heart works in this way, immediately running to the covenant, it is an excellent sign of true grace.

Burroughs then goes on to consider the particular promises:

  • Psalm 91:1-2, He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty…For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence
  • Isaiah 43:2, When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers they will not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.
  • Isaiah 54:17, No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
  • Joshua 1:5, I will not leave you or forsake you
  • Hebrews 13:5, Keep your life free from the love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
  • Psalm 34:10, The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
  • Psalm 37:5-6, Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.
  • Isaiah 58:10, If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

But Burroughs reminds the Christian that when considering the promises of God, we should always “consider their connection to the root, the great covenant that God has made with them in Christ.” He reminds his reader, “Now if I had lived in the time of the law, perhaps I might have been somewhat more confident of the literal performance of the promise, than I can be now in the time of the gospel.” Or again, he says we “ought not to lay too much upon the literal sense,” but rather remember that “all the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20). In other words, we must be careful how we make use of the old covenant promises.

But they are nonetheless for us. “Every time a godly man reads Scripture (remember this when you are reading Scripture) and there meets with a promise, he ought to lay his hand upon it and say, This is part of my inheritance, it is mine, and I am to live upon it. This will make you contented.”

By recalling the promises of God, connecting all the promises to their ultimate fulfillment in Christ, and turning to these promises as our insurance policy in the midst of any affliction, we will grow in obtaining the rare jewel of Christian contentment.

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Five Warning Signs: Have you abandoned your first love?

In a short letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus told them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4).

1. What does it mean to abandon your first love?

It means that at one time in the past you had greater love than you do now. You aren’t necessarily running on a completely empty tank, but you’re on fumes. That original fullness of love has been diminished.

Think back to your conversion and the kinds of spiritual experiences you had at first. Maybe your had some poorly formed understanding of the gospel, not really a developed knowledge of God. Yet while the mind wasn’t fully informed, the heart was beating fast, passionate.

For me that early period was my high school and college years. I was excited about discovering new things about the faith. I stayed up late nights in my room reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and any book by John Piper I could find. I memorized Scripture. We had a group of guys that met each week and read books together and kept each other accountable for growing in the faith and prayed together. We were going to downtown Madison to talk about the gospel with university students. There was vitality and zeal.

You can probably think back to some of those early formative experiences in the faith. Maybe some of you are going through that period right now. It’s like a budding romance, the honeymoon phase, the newborn. And Jesus says that first love should be our always love. And so we have to honestly ask…

2. How do you know if you’ve lost it? How do you assess that? Here are five warning signs.

Warning sign #1 is that you talk about spiritual growth in the past tense. When you think about transformative truth you’ve learned, or dominating sins you’ve defeated, they aren’t recent things. Maybe God has done some amazing things in your life, but that was in prior years or decades. If you aren’t learning new truths and taking new steps in following Jesus, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #2 is that you have a hard time loving others. You’re easily irritated with those around you. Criticism of other people is a steady part of your conversation. Or when you think of those who disagree with you politically or doctrinally, all you feel is disdain and disgust. John says to you, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). Or else he is a liar. You may be able to explain the Trinity with precision, but does your own family, or whoever you live with, do they really believe you love God wholeheartedly, and do they see that love reflected in the way you treat them? If you have a hard time loving others, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #3 is that you can’t remember the last time you shared the gospel with a non-Christian. Christians can do all our evangelism in an echo chamber. We talk about doing evangelism but never actually do it. And that slowly morphs over time to the point that we love the fact that we’re right about the gospel and care little about the fact that others don’t know it. We have a zeal to be right, but not a zeal for Christ to be known. If you haven’t talked about Jesus with a non-Christian lately, maybe you’re low on love.

Warning sign #4 is that your love for the world is stronger than your love for the Father. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). God gives earthly gifts to be enjoyed. Paul said, “Everything created by God is good…and should be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). The question isn’t whether you enjoy earthly things, but whether you’re enjoying them more than God.

Warning sign #5 is that you are harboring some known sin. David’s secret adulterous sin with Bathsheba was corrosive to his love for God. He thought he could continue as God’s king without honoring God’s laws. When David finally repented of that sin, he pleaded with God, “Renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” A lot of people try to worship heartily on Sunday morning and harbor sin all week long. You can’t grip God and sin with the same fist.

3. How do you get it back? If you’ve lost your first love, how do you recover it?

If you have in your head an initial diagnosis of having left your first love, don’t ignore that thought. Paul says “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17). What the Holy Spirit wants is the death of your sin. The Spirit’s interest revolves around revealing your sin, and leading you to put it to death. Don’t ignore that diagnosis if that’s what you’ve come up with.

But don’t go to self-condemnation over that either. Psalm 103 says that God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Jesus was divine righteousness. We are dust from the earth. And God doesn’t expect divinity out of humanity. He forgives our failings and is sympathetic with our weaknesses. So don’t respond with neglect, but don’t respond with despair either. Instead, consider how to recover that first love. Here are five suggestions.

First, repent of known sin and reconcile where needed. Let’s go back to that known sin we were just talking about. We all know that there is a lot under the surface of life, and the reality is that we all are walking in forms of hypocrisy, where our belief is better than our conduct. But are you hiding and covering sins, or are you actively dealing with them, repenting? The Christian is not marked by perfection, but by repentance. And if your sin requires relational healing with someone, attend to it immediately. Love toward God grows along with love toward others.

Second, after repenting of sin, ask God for growth in love. Follow the example of David in Psalm 51, go back and read that passage, where after repenting from sin, he pleads with God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Where does love for God come from? Where do we go to get it? 1 John 4:7, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” To love God is a gift that he gives. Ask him, and don’t stop asking. Repent of sin, then ask God for growth in love.

Third, apply the gospel to yourself every day. A mature Christian is one who applies the truth of the gospel regularly to their heart and life. John Newton said the word that is most descriptive of the mature Christian is “contemplation” (Newton, Select Letters, 14). Because the mature Christian has tried to maintain obedience for a long time, and has realized the inevitability of our failure, and the insufficiency of our self-effort, and thus the absolute necessity of the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ. And the more our self-understanding is shaped by the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus, the more we will love God and others. To have the “first love” is to be constantly aware of the forgiveness that has come to you through Jesus Christ. Apply the gospel to your sin.

Fourth, share the gospel with others. Remember, Jesus intended for the church in Ephesus to be a lamp stand (1:12, 20, 2:1). To remedy the loss of love, Jesus says, “remember from where you have fallen, do the works you did at first.” He calls them to renew their status as an effective gospel lampstand. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God (Matthew 5:13-16).

Fifth, do all this as part of the church. This letter to the church in Ephesus addresses the church as a whole: “You all have left your first love.” We should each examine ourselves individually, but it is also true that just as you have individual flaws and virtues, so also your church has distinctive flaws and virtues that reflect patterns among its many members. Every Christian has to own the responsibility of their church as a whole. No one wants to be blamed for the sin of others, but here in Revelation the church is addressed as a whole. And so we must think not only of our own individual health, but also of the health of our church.

 

Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 represent Jesus’ assessment of what was good and what was not good in these churches. These were actual churches in historical cities in modern-day Turkey (Asia Minor), but in many ways, these individual churches represent churches of all time. The virtues they demonstrated as well as the flaws that marked them are shared in common by churches of every age.

So we can take these letters together, and assess the health of our own church by what we find here. The overall themes are doctrinal fidelity, holy behavior, gospel witness, and sincere, lively love toward God. Any church could assess itself against the seven qualities that Jesus calls these churches to exhibit. Each point of assessment could be accompanied by a set of diagnostic questions to help determine the church’s state of health.

  1. Authentic Love (2:1-7, Ephesus). They were commended for rejecting false apostles, but critiqued for abandoning their first love. They had doctrinal fidelity without sincere love. Jesus calls them to correct this discrepancy in their church by pursuing authentic love which combined concern for doctrine with zealous affection for God.
    • Is our church high on doctrinal fidelity, but low on spiritual passion, especially in the form of witnessing of Jesus to non-Christians? Do new people tend to come to our church because of our doctrinal depth or because of our spiritual passion?
  1. Enduring Faithfulness (2:8-11, Smyrna). Jesus has only commendation for Smyrna. Because of their faith in Christ, they are materially poor, and yet they are spiritually rich. As slander, economic exclusion and persecution increased for them, Jesus calls them to enduring faithfulness. The need is for fidelity in the midst of oppression.
    • Is our church prioritizing faithfulness to Jesus over acceptance in society? Where dominant cultural trends are at odds with the Christian faith, are we maintaining a counter-cultural stance?
  1. Pure Teaching (2:12-17, Pergamum). In some ways, the church in Pergamum was the opposite of Ephesus. Pergamum was holding fast to Jesus amid extreme opposition, and yet they were permitting false teaching in the church. Jesus calls them to repent and remove the false teachers from the church. Jesus calls them to pure teaching.
    • Is there any teaching in our church that does not align with Scripture, but we aren’t dealing with it because it would be too difficult, or we’re afraid it might hurt feelings?
  1. Holy Separation (2:18-29, Thyatira). Jesus commends them for being full of good works, but rebukes them sharply for tolerating sexual immorality as well as pagan idol worship. Jesus calls them to separate themselves from every form of idolatry and immorality.
    • Are we turning a blind eye toward members in our church that we know are indulging in various forms of immorality or blatant worldliness? What are some clear examples of worldliness that cannot coexist with faith in Jesus?
  1. Gospel Behavior (3:1-6, Sardis). Jesus commends a handful of Christians in Sardis who have been faithful, but he has nothing good to say about the church as a whole. They have not continued in living as faithful followers of Jesus. The letter is not specific about precise features of their unfaithfulness, but there are some clues that they have not continued witnessing the good news of Jesus Christ. Beale points out that if Christians in Sardis had “maintained too high a Christian profile in the city, they would likely have encountered persecution of various sorts.”
    • Does our church’s service in our local community reflect the gospel to anyone outside the church who observes us? If our church vanished from the city tomorrow, would anyone notice that we were gone?
  1. Bold Perseverance (3:7-13, Philadelphia). Jesus has nothing negative to say to the church in Philadelphia (as with Smyrna). Philadelphia receives a similar exhortation, but with a particular emphasis on continuing to speak of Jesus with others, even though they may feel weak or intimidated. Jesus encourages them continue in boldness despite opposition.
    • How frequently are the members of our church (collectively) speaking of Jesus to those around them? As society more broadly rejects theistic explanations of reality, how faithful are we in continuing to point others to transcendent truth as revealed in Jesus?
  1. Spiritual Vitality (3:14-22, Laodicea). Smyrna was spiritually rich but materially poor. But Laodicea is the other way around. They say, “I am rich and prosperous.” But Jesus says, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” This church is on the verge of not being considered a believing community at all. Jesus says to them to beware of the dangerous position they are in, repent of these obvious patterns of sin in their faith community, and to renew their sincere commitment to Jesus.
    • Is there clear evidence that members of our church are regularly repenting of sin? What demonstrations of continuous renewal of commitment to Jesus do we see in our church?

Every one of these letters concludes with this exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These letters demand reflection that results in Spirit-empowered transformation, both for individuals and congregations.

Vocation: Assessing Desires, Gifts and Opportunities

The question is often asked, “Am I called to vocational ministry?”

The Bible’s teaching about “calling” is primarily about God’s calling people to salvation and to walk in holiness. Romans 8:30 says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.” So there’s the calling to salvation. And then Ephesians 2:10 says, “We were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Compare that with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” Those two verses give us the call to good works. So when we talk about being “called,” we have to base our understanding of that term not in contemporary usage, but in Biblical usage. And the Bible fundamentally teaches that our calling is unto salvation and holiness.

It may be worth noting as well that the calling is rooted in God’s will. He predestined those he called. And he prepared the good works for them to walk in. His calling is rooted in his purpose. But that will or purpose is going to play out in some specific arena of life. Every Christian has been called to salvation and holiness. But that holiness is going to be lived in some specific context, a mechanic’s garage or an office desk, with three messy kids or lines of upset customers. And so we must further think about God’s specific calling for each individual. The question we all have in mind is, “What am I called to?” And that question is synonymous with the question, “What is God’s will for my life?”

When I was in college I asked a professor those questions, “Am I called to ministry and how do I know God’s will for my life?” And he gave me three points to consider—three ingredients that when mixed together then comprise a fair assessment of God’s will and calling. Here are those three points with some Scripture and comment on each.

First, consider what desires God has put in your heart. We often shy away from evaluating our own desires as if there is something inherently ungodly about considering what we want. But scripture doesn’t have that same hesitancy. Rather, scripture tells us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). This led Augustine to say, “Love God and do as you please.” In other words, if our delight is rooted in God, then the desires of our heart will generally be a good launching point from which to begin considering where God may be calling or leading us. The New Testament also confirms this when giving instruction for how to determine pastors-elders in the church, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Now of course that statement speaks to the dignity and legitimacy of the office of elder. But it also speaks to the legitimacy of a person desiring a certain role and aspiring towards that desire.

So zoom out on this principle and let’s apply it more broadly than just the role of elder. When you’re considering where God may be leading you, what he might be calling you to, what his will for your life is—a good question to start with (after confirming you’re saved and walking in obedience—the fundamental callings) would be this question, “What has God given me a desire to do?” (Note: there are varying levels of desire, but is there something that rises to the surface in your desires, perhaps as the strongest desire you have? Pray that God would give you desires in a specific direction that you might know them and seek to follow the desires he gives). But desires alone don’t determine calling.

Second, consider what gifts God has placed in your hands. God has given gifts to every member of the church in order for each of the members to contribute according to the type of grace they have received so that as every member works together contributing their unique input, the whole body may be built up in love. Does that sound familiar? It’s not my idea; it’s straight from Ephesians 2:7-15. And the point is that members should serve according to their individual gifts with a view towards the benefit of others and the unity of the body (i.e. people aren’t trying to insert themselves in roles that they are not gifted to serve in).

Another text that provides sure-footing for us on this point is 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” In other words, God’s “grace-gifts” come in various shapes and sizes. Some are wired for public leadership and speaking. Some feel more at home with hospitality. Still others would rather be working and serving behind the scenes. There is a role for each. And the whole body is happiest when gifted people are serving in roles according to their gifts. This process comes by the grace of God, “in order that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

Some practical advice on this point: don’t decide for yourself what your gifts are. We are prone to misperceive our strengths and weaknesses. Second point of practical advice: don’t rely on a spiritual gifts inventory assessment. Again, we are prone to misperceive ourselves, and most of these tests are just a matter of you answering questions in order to tell yourself what you’re good at. They are a guided self-assessment. Nothing more. And while self-assessment is good (it would be related to assessing your desires), it is also important to draw out and listen to the assessment of others, so that by their input you might more accurately perceive yourself. Ask your pastors and spiritual mentors what they see you doing well at. Ask them where you appear weak. Consider this also: what do people most regularly thank you for and tell you they’ve appreciated about you? The answer to that question will likely be a pointer to your gifting.

Don’t be satisfied with your own opinion on this. If your gifts are intended not primarily for your own fulfillment, but for the edification of the body, which is what Ephesians and Peter point to, then it is the body’s assessment of your gifts that is actually more important than your own assessment of your gifts.

Once you have determined your gifting, then you are in a better position to survey the possibility of God’s calling on your life. Especially if the desires of your heart and the gifting of your hands are strongly related to each other. But there is at least one other important consideration.

Third, consider what opportunities God has laid before you. Let’s say a guy wants to be a preacher, and he thinks he has the gift of preaching, but no churches are willing to offer him that role. Is he called? Well most people would say yes. In our evangelical culture, we regularly hear people talk about how they were “called to preach” at a certain age, like thirteen or even nine. However, it may be more appropriate to say that is when he first sensed the desire to preach, not the call to preach. Then maybe some time later he realized he had the gift of teaching—which would definitely indicate that he is moving in the right direction. But I would say that even then he is still not called—because God’s calling is always set in the context of serving the body.

Consider this example. Paul wrote Titus a brief letter about how to lead the church in Crete, and gave this direction, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Now the men Titus appointed, they were called. This is clear because in addition to having the desire of 1 Timothy 3:1 (to be overseers), and the gifting necessary for the role (“able to give instruction in sound doctrine,” Titus 1:9), they also now had a specific context to exercise the desire and gift, that is, the church in Crete. They weren’t “called” until Titus “appointed” them for a specific role.

Again notice how the body functions in regards to opportunities. The individuals weren’t determining their roles and gifting alone, and then forcing themselves into certain realms of service. They were being appointed by the body. Consider how this pattern shows up in Acts 13 as well:

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. While they [the church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

Do you see how men who were recognized as gifted, were then called to specific opportunity by the body? This is a good principle for us to pursue when trying to evaluate calling, whether to gospel ministry in the church or not. In other words, there is a sense in which this divine wisdom is proverbial and thus applicable to consideration of any role or job. In America, we have great freedom to pursue jobs and careers (specific opportunities) that match our desires and giftedness (remember, this is a historical anomaly). But we would be wise to always seek input from the body in making these decisions.

Finally, it’s important to realize that each of these three considerations are essential to determining a calling. I can’t base my determination of God’s will on any one of these things. Desire alone doesn’t mean I should move in that direction. Giftedness doesn’t mean the timing is right. An available opportunity doesn’t mean you have the skill-set to meet the need. All three must be present, and you would be wise ask for the honest, candid feedback of others to determine if you are perceiving your desires and gifts accurately.

Further Resources: Called to Ministry by Edmund Clowney (concise, 1976); Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen (comprehensive, 1980).

When to Fear Your Sin: Six Symptoms of Soul-Destroying Sin

Of course all sin should be avoided, but some sins are particularly dangerous. In his classic The Mortification of Sin, John Owen gives six marks or symptoms of sins that will require “extraordinary remedies.” The whole book is simply an extended reflection on Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of body you will live.” But some deeds of the body don’t die easily. So, what are the marks and symptoms by which we can identify these sins that we should particularly fear?

1. Inveterateness. An inveterate sin is a persistent habit. These lusts may have weathered many a storm and prevailed under the display of a variety of ministries of the Word of God. If this is the case do you think it will prove an easy thing to dislodge such a room-mate, pleading to stay? Old and neglected wounds can prove to be fatal, and are always dangerous. How long has you sin clung so closely (Heb. 12:1)?

2. Secret pleas of the heart for the countenancing of itself. There is a blind optimism that ignores failures and pretends experiences of grace. For a man to gather up his good experiences with God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider them, and to try to improve them is an excellent thing. To do it, however, to satisfy your conscience when your heart is convicted with sin is a desperate device of the heart that is in love with sin.

3. Frequency of success in sin’s seduction. When the will finds delight in a sin, even though it is not outwardly performed, the temptation is successful. A man may not go along with the sin as to the outward act, yet if he embraces the desire of it in his heart, the temptation has prevailed. If a lust frequently succeeds this way, it is a very bad sign.

4. When a man fights against his sin only because of the consequences or penalty due unto it. A man who only opposes the sin in his heart for fear of shame among men or eternal punishment from God would practice the sin if there were no punishment attending it. On the other hand, those who belong to Christ have the preciousness of communion with God and a deep-rooted hatred of sin as sin to oppose to all the workings of lust in their hearts. Consider Joseph: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”, my good and gracious God (Gen. 39:9).

5. When it is probable that trouble over a sin is a chastening punishment from God. This one may be harder to discern: how can someone know if there is the chastening hand of God behind his troubled heart? Examine your heart and ways. What was the state of your heart before you fell into the entanglements of the sin now troubling you? Were you negligent in duties or self-discipline? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon you that you have not repented of? If any of these are true of you, then you may be like Jonah, fast asleep while the storm of God’s anger surrounds you.

6. When your lust has already withstood particular dealings from God against it. Israel is often described in this condition (Isa. 57:17; 2 Chron. 36:15-16). God had dealt with them about their prevailing lust in several ways, by affliction and desertion; yet they held out against all. This is a sad condition, from which nothing but mere sovereign grace may set a man free, and no one in such a state should presume upon such deliverance.

It looks as if Owen is describing what we might call a habit. A habit is a routine action or thought process that has become so automatic that we often do it without rational premeditation, or sometimes even against rational premeditation. We may say in our heads, “I don’t want to do this. I shouldn’t do this. I will regret doing this.” And yet we proceed. Deeply ingrained habits are powerful, and when they are sinful they must be addressed with great fear and seriousness. They require “extraordinary remedies.”

What Next?
If you identify habits that reflect some or all of the six symptoms above, begin by confessing these sins to God and asking for his help to kill them. Your next step should be to acknowledge these sins to a brother or sister in Christ who is mature enough to help you further diagnose the sin and begin fighting against it to put it to death. Don’t assume you can fight embedded sin patterns alone without help. You can’t. This is why Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:2).

Repentance in the Wrong Direction

“They return, but not upward.” Those five words from Hosea 7:16 provide a brief anatomy of sham repentance from the preaching of the Old Testament prophet Hosea. In response to his message, Israel seems to repent of sin, but it turns out they only wanted to escape consequences.

Repentance is the key theme of Hosea’s preaching. He repeatedly delivered God’s message to Israel, that they must “turn” from their sin and “return” to Yahweh (the Hebrew word is used twenty times). Turning and returning are the same Hebrew word—it’s Hosea’s word for repentance. To turn/return describes what it means to repent, to acknowledge a heart that is off-course and then to make course corrections.

Sin Begins With Unbelief

According to Hosea, the sins of Israel were numerous. God, as if a plaintiff, lists his allegations against the nation: swearing, lying, murdering, stealing, committing adultery, general indulgence and drunkenness, prostitution, greed, idolatry and more (4:1-19).

But the most offensive sin is Israel’s worship of a calf-idol (8:4-6; 10:5-8; 13:2). Whatever the historical details about this calf-idol may be, it represents the first principle of Israel’s sin—Yahweh was no longer their god. They were worshipping at other altars. Their list of sins, though despicable, were but the outgrowth of this root. There was “no knowledge of God in the land…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:1, 6).

This is where sin begins, unbelief. Not believing that God is full of grace. Not believing that his promises are true. Not believing that his commands for us are good and will lead to joy. When God’s character, his promises and his commands are unknown or unbelieved, what results is sin.

False Gods Give False Pleasures

Because Israel had turned away from God, and because their sins were ever-expanding, they experienced misery. They had sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind (8:7). Indulgence yields misery; false gods give false pleasures. The insightful author David Foster Wallace describes this.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

David Foster Wallace saw half the truth. Anything else you worship will eat you alive. That’s true. But demoting Yahweh to equality with the Wiccan mother-goddess is damning with faint praise. A god with no contours—with no definition, or where definition is meaningless—is as parasitical as unconscious gods like sex, power, intelligence, wealth, or calf-idols.

Israel had been eaten alive by their false worship. “You have plowed iniquity; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil” (10:13-15).

Deliverance With No Deliverer

So Israel is left surveying the damage done by their unbelief. And their misery led them to cry out to God. “Come let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord…he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth” (6:1-3). This looks like repentance, like they are about to give up their false gods and regain their former knowledge of the one true God, Yahweh.

But again, God’s evaluation—“They return, but not upward”—clarifies the nature of their regret. Those words of resolve were short-lived. They wanted their prosperity to improve and they wanted peace in their land, but in reality cared little for their relationship to God. They wanted deliverance, but not the Deliverer. Genuine repentance aims at a return to God, not a removal of discomfort.

Why We Repent Falsely

The misery sin brings often leads us to false repentance. An employee determines to stop squandering work hours only because of growing anxiety she may lose her job. A husband doesn’t want to live with the bitterness of his wife, so he apologizes to heal the relationship for his own benefit. Living contrary to God’s design often brings misery, either internal misery (anxiety, guilt, frustration) or circumstantial misery (unfulfilled ambitions, broken relationships, lost jobs). And that internal/external misery pushes us to the edge of repentance.

So there’s the pattern. Unbelief gives birth to sin. Sin blossoms into misery. Misery brings regret. Regret compels initial changes. But regret quickly fades and old habits resurface. As God said of Israel’s initial resolve: “ Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (6:4). Repentance for the sake of self-improvement is not repentance, but rather further idolatry. 

Some Marks of True Turning

All the above thoughts are just some observations from Hosea regarding Israel’s false repentance. Much more needs to be said about the ongoing struggle we all have to live up to all that God has called us to, about true repentance, and about the inexhaustible forgiveness of Jesus Christ. So what are the marks of true turning? How can we avoid repenting in the wrong direction? Just jotting down a few suggestions here, maybe I can fill them out later.

  1. Repent before repercussions. Repenting before you are caught in act is evidence of sincerity.
  2. Be specific about the sin. What you did.
  3. Take your sins to the right place. The Christian can see more clearly than Hosea, there is only one place to take our sins: to Christ. He saw this only dimly (Hosea 3:4-5 predicts national repentance in the presence of a second David, an anointed figure, but this vision is ambiguous at best).
  4. Evaluate underlying motivations. Why you did it.
  5. Resolve by God’s help not to repeat. I won’t do it again. “So you, by the help of your God, return, hold fast to love and justice, and wait continually for God” (12:6).

Some Thoughts on Daily Bible Reading

lightstock_4192_xsmall_nikolas_Lots of people use Bible reading plans to guide their daily Bible reading. I’m in favor of reading plans – I use M’Cheynes One Year Reading Plan myself. But I also think it’s important to remember that reading plans are man-made tools, not divine mandates.This means you’re free not to read the Bible today.

One reason this is helpful to remember is that many of us feel burdened at times by obligatory Bible reading. Our minds are racing for one reason or another. Our hearts are melancholy and unresponsive to gospel truths. In this condition a hurried and distracted heart easily finds that following a reading plan feels like a chore. Maybe on a mind-chaos day it would be better not to read, but to rest.

John Owen was very realistic about the difficulty and distractions of our minds. In his writings about meditation he says, “When, after this preparation, you find yourselves yet perplexed and entangled, not able comfortably to persist in spiritual thoughts unto your refreshment…cry and sigh to God for help and relief.” And then he advises to end the time and come back to it tomorrow.

So maybe you’re not “feelin it” today. Your mind is in a thousand places and try as you might, it refuses to be reined in. What should you do? I humbly suggest you close your Bible and instead fix your mind on one verse or prayer that you might take with you through the day. “Lord, set in my heart a sense of the joy and freedom that are mine as a child whose Father is God.”

Remember, the Bible doesn’t demand for itself to be read every day. Thou shalt read the Bible daily is not one of the ten commands. Many (perhaps most?) Christians throughout history have not had access to the Bible at all, or at least not in a language they could read. One of the clearest calls to the constant use of Scripture is found in the first psalm, “Blessed is the man…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” There is no call for daily Bible reading, but rather for constant meditation. The expectation is both less and more.

Bible reading is aimed at preparation for heaven. Like trees don’t grow overnight, so the fruit of devotion to Scripture is cumulative not instantaneous. We read as preparation for heaven, not just for today. This future orientation removes the pressure from immediate daily obligations. The goal is larger and longer. Thus we should read the Bible regularly in preparation for heaven, but this does not demand daily reading. If it seems more prudent to forego Bible reading for a day, our preparations for reunion with God are not thereby thwarted. Geoffrey Thomas encourages persistence in Bible reading with heaven as the goal:

Do not expect always to get an emotional charge or a feeling of quiet peace when you read the Bible. By the grace of God you may expect that to be a frequent experience, but often you will get no emotional response at all. Let the Word break over your heart and mind again and again as the years go by, and imperceptibly there will come great changes in your attitude and outlook and conduct. You will probably be the last to recognize these… Go on reading it until you can read no longer, and then you will not need the Bible any more, because when your eyes close for the last time in death, and never again read the Word of God in Scripture you will open them to the Word of God in the flesh, that same Jesus of the Bible whom you have known for so long, standing before you to take you forever to his eternal home.

G. Thomas is speaking about the necessity of persistence in Bible reading. We should certainly persist even when feelings do not align. I’m not so much talking here about persistence over the course of ten years as I am about frequency from day to day. So  if you haven’t read your Bible in thirty days, then these thoughts are not for you. You should probably commit to daily Bible reading for the next thirty days and revive the experience of its constant benefits. But for those whose hearts feel bound to mechanical daily duties, go breathe the fresh air of freedom. As you walk in fellowship with the Father, there will be many days of joy and freedom in reading the Bible, but it won’t be every day. And there will come a day when reading the text is outmoded, giving way to the greater glory, “that same Jesus of the Bible whom you have known for so long, standing before you to take you forever to his eternal home.”