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The Virgin Mary: God’s Submissive Servant

One important lesson we can learn from the life of Mary the mother of Christ is her submission to God’s will. By grace, she submitted to God and trusted him to accomplish what is impossible with man (Luke 1:37). The late RC Sproul once described Mary as a Christian’s model of submission.

In Luke’s account of Mary and the angel Gabriel we learn that after Mary was told that she  will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit,  she surrendered  herself to God’s word and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

There are two important lessons we glean from Mary’s submission. First, she submitted despite having unanswered questions. In Luke 1:34 she asked how she will be able to give birth while she is a virgin. The angel explained that this will happen by the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think Mary fully understood how all things will come about just as we, today, cannot fully explain the incarnation. Remember that this had never happened before in the history of humanity. Mary was the first and the only young woman to be told that she will conceive without a man.

Then there was the question of Joseph. What will he think about this and how will he react? Will he not decide to divorce her once he discovers that she is pregnant and not by him? Mind you at this moment, the angel has not yet gone to Joseph and informed him that Mary will conceive by the Holy Spirit.

Second, Mary submitted knowing that this could cost her life. Probably, we don’t often think about it when we read this account. But have you ever wondered what would have happened if Joseph divorced Mary and told the people that he was not responsible for the pregnancy? The obvious conclusion would have been that Mary committed adultery and the sentence for this “crime” was death by stoning (Deut. 22:23). This was a costly submission. Again, Mary did not know that the angel will also go to Joseph and told him not to divorce her as we read in the gospel of Matthew. Yet she submitted to God’s will.

I am very certain that there will never be another Mary in this world. God will never come to another young woman and ask her to be the mother of Christ. However, again and again God in his word and through the work of the Holy Spirit comes to us and asks us to do some things for him and his kingdom. Some of these things might not make sense and we might not fully understand them. Others might be costly. It could be that we have to make huge sacrifices to fulfill God’s will in our lives. How will we respond to God’s call? I strongly believe that Mary’s response is the best response for every Christian called to do God’s will. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”

At the core of our daily walk with Christ is the call to obey and trust him. The hymn writer was right:

Trust and Obey

For there is no other way

To be happy in Jesus

But to trust and obey

By his  grace, Christ enables us to trust and obey just as he enabled Mary to trust and obey.

(This material first appeared in a form of a sermon which was preached at London Free Reformed Church in London, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2017).
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A New Year’s Sermon

This is an excerpt from the sermon which Rev. Charles Haddon Spurgeon preached on January 1, 1860. The title of the message was “A New Year’s Benediction,” and it was taken from 1 Peter 5:10

I wish, my brothers and sisters, that during this year you may live nearer to Christ than you have ever done before. Depend upon it, it is when we think much of Christ that we think little of ourselves, little of our troubles, and little of the doubts and fears that surround us. Begin from this day, and may God help you. Never let a single day pass over your head without a visit to the garden of Gethsemane, and the cross on Calvary.

And as for some of you who are not saved, and know not the Redeemer, I would to God that this very day you would come to Christ. I dare say you think coming to Christ is some terrible thing: that you need to be prepared before you come; that he is hard and harsh with you. When men have to go to a lawyer they need to tremble; when they have to go to the doctor they may fear; though both those persons, however unwelcome, may be often necessary. But when you come to Christ, you may come boldly. There is no fee required; there is no preparation necessary. You may come just as you are.

It was a brave saying of Martin Luther’s, when he said, “I would run into Christ’s arms even if he had a drawn sword in his hand.” Now, he has not a drawn sword, but he has his wounds in his hands. Run into his arms, poor sinner. “Oh,” you say, “May I come?” How can you ask the question? you are commanded to come. The great command of the gospel is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus.” Those who disobey this command disobey God. It is as much a command of God that man should believe on Christ, as that we should love our neighbor.

Now, what is a command I have certainly a right to obey. There can be no question you see; a sinner has liberty to believe in Christ because he is told to do so. God would not have told him to do a thing which he must not do. You are allowed to believe. “Oh,” saith one, “that is all I want to know. I do believe that Christ is able to save to the uttermost. May I rest my soul on him, and say, sink or swim, most blessed Jesus, thou art my Lord?” May do it! man? Why you are commanded to do it. Oh that you may be enabled to do it.

Remember, this is not a thing which you will do at a risk. The risk is in not doing it. Cast yourself on Christ, sinner. Throw away every other dependence and rest alone on him. “No,” says one, “I am not prepared.” Prepared! sir? Then you do not understand me. There is no preparation needed; it is, just as you are. “Oh, I do not feel my need enough.” I know you do not. What has that to do with it? You are commanded to cast yourself on Christ. Be you never so black or never so bad, trust to him. He that believeth on Christ shall be saved, be his sins never so many, he that believeth not must be damned be his sins never so few.

The great command of the gospel is, “Believe.” “Oh,” but saith one, “am I to say I know that Christ died for me?” Ah, I did not say that, you shall learn that by-and-bye. You have nothing to do with that question now, your business is to believe on Christ and trust him; to cast yourself into his hands. And may God the Spirit now sweetly compel you to do it. Now, sinner, hands off your own righteousness. Drop all idea of becoming better through your own strength. Cast yourself flat on the promise.

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One of the key doctrines that sets apart the Roman Catholic Church (RC) and the Protestant churches is the doctrine of Mary also called Mariology. The RC exalts Mary to the position of a mediator between God and man and pray to her and say, “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

As Protestants, and more especially as Reformed believers, we are appalled by this prayer. How can one pray through Mary while Christ is the only mediator between God and man as Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 2:5? But in our reaction to RC’s doctrine of Mary we often tend to go to another unhealthy extreme of ignoring the important and God-given role that Mary played  in the history of our redemption.

We need to guard against this extreme because as we see in the Bible Mary by God’s grace did play an essential role in our redemption. It is through her that the Savior, Jesus Christ, was born in the world. It is of little wonder then that her name is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed.  Above all, the Scriptures call her “blessed among women” (Luke 2:42, 48).

One thing that will help us guard against the mentioned extreme is to always remember that Mary was chosen by God out of God’s own grace. This is where we the Protestants differ with the RC.  In Luke 1:28-30 we read

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

The Greek word charis translated favor in this passage means grace. In interpreting these verses the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary was the one who had grace. In other words, Mary was the source of grace hence in the “Hail Mary” Prayer, the RC members pray:

“Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

However, this contradicts what Luke 1:28-30 tell us. Mary was the recipient of God’s grace; she was never the source of grace. Mary was not full of grace; God alone is full of grace.

The brief account of Mary which Luke records for us in chapter 1 clearly demonstrates that it was Mary who found grace in the eyes of God. Consider the following three points. First, Mary was a sinner in need of a Savior (Luke 1:46) just like all of us. And the Lord saved her by grace and chose her by the same grace to be the mother of Christ.

Second, Mary was from a very low and humble background. She was not a daughter of a king or a daughter of a rich man. In her song, the Magnificat, recorded for us in Luke 1:46-55 she confesses that she is from a humble estate. In verse 48 she says, “For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” In verses 52-53 she says, “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

Third, Mary was from an obscure town of Nazareth as we read in Luke 1:26 “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth.” Nazareth was neither the capital of Israel nor a big city in Israel. It was a city of little significance humanly speaking. You might remember that when Christ began to call his disciples in  John chapter 1 we read  that one of his first disciples was Phillip.  Later Philip invited his friend, Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” And what was the response of Nathaniel? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

This is what people thought of Nazareth the hometown of Mary. Nothing good can come out of this little-known town. Yet, it is to this obscure city that God went and found a young lady named Mary and said to her, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).

The story of Mary resembles the story of our salvation in many ways. God chose to save us not because we were a better, richer or more powerful people. He saved us solely out of his sheer grace and mercy as Apostle Paul clearly reminds us  in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29:

26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being  might boast in the presence of God.

God’s grace is indeed amazing.  To Him alone be the glory forever!

(This material first appeared in a form of a sermon which was first preached at London Free Reformed Church in London, Ontario, Canada on December 17, 2017).

The Virgin Mary: Chosen by Grace

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My Life as a Christian, My Sermons

A Cry of the Broken Heart (Psalm 130:1-2)

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice, let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy! (Psalm 130:1-2)

The Psalmist is crying to the Lord with his broken heart.  His heart is broken due to the sin or sins he has committed. Now please notice the two things about this cry.

First, is the object of his cry. To whom does the Psalmist cry out? To the Lord! “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!” In the depths of his sin, the Psalmist cries out to the Lord. This is very important to notice because sometimes when we believers sin, more especially if it is a grievous sin, we feel ashamed to turn to God. We look at ourselves and think of how much we have brought the name of the Lord into disrepute. And we think to ourselves, “How can I turn to the Lord in this mess. Where do I start?” And Satan takes advantage of our guilt and shame and whispers in our ears and says, “Look at you a hypocrite! You claim to be a child of God, how can you sin this way if you are really a child of God. How can you? Do you think God will hear you prayer after you have let him down like this?”

If we are not careful we buy into this lie of the devil and instead of drawing close to the Lord, we withdraw from the Lord and like a wounded dog run into the corner in darkness to lick our wounds. Satan does this deliberately so that we can despair and think that the sin has conquered us and there is no way out. However, we need to learn from the psalmist here. When we have fallen flat on our face because of sin, it is time to lift our eyes and cry out to the Lord through Jesus Christ. The Psalmist did not completely fall into despair. He turned to the Lord and cried for help. For sure the hymn writer was right when he wrote:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me

Secondly, I want us to notice the plea or the request of his cry. What is the psalmist asking in his cry? “O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my please for mercy.” The Psalmist is crying out to the Lord for mercy. He is saying: “I know that I deserve your judgment Lord because of my sin. But please be merciful to me and do not punish me in your anger, as my sin deserves.” The Psalmist is not crying to the Lord because he is worthy but rather because his God is a God of mercy. So, when we have sinned let’s remember that God is merciful.

Of course, God hates sin and nothing will change that. Of course, God will punish all unrepented sin and nothing can change that. But also God is a God of mercy. When we have confessed and repented of our sin, he freely grants his mercy. This why the psalmist in Psalm 103 rejoices and declares: “Bless the LORD, O my soul and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity…He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him (2, 9-11).

So, when our heart is broken due to sin. Let’s remember to cry out to the Lord. Don’t despair. Don’t wallow in your sin because there is mercy with God. He pardons those who truly repent of their sin.

(This material first appeared in a sermon form which was preached at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, USA on October 22, 2017)

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Christianity and theology

What Happens at Death?

We are continuing with our study of personal eschatology, and we now come to the question of death. What happens at death? This is a broad question that unfortunately cannot be answered broadly since there are two types of deaths namely that of a believer and an unbeliever. What occurs at the death of these two differs significantly. We will look at believer’s first and later at unbelievers.

First, as a Christian dies, he experiences God’s grace. This might sound obvious since the daily life of a believer is marked by grace. But, I highlight this point because even though death is a defeated foe, it still remains one of great fears of humanity. It is for no reason that we call it the chief of terrors. Many have experienced or witnessed loved ones passing into glory, perhaps more than a dozen times, yet they can’t say that they are used to death. Since no single human being can be used to death, God always grants grace both to the one dying and to his family, more especially, if they are believers. Christ’s grace proves to be more than sufficient and helps everyone through it.

Second, at death a believer attains full sanctification (Heb. 12:23). In this life, by God’s grace, a believer strives to become more like Christ but sin has not yet been fully conquered in his life. However, at death sin is completely eliminated and the Holy Spirit makes his soul perfect in holiness.

Third, a believer’s soul immediately enters into heaven. There are a number of teachings regarding what happens after the soul has been separated from the body in death. Some have taught that the soul sleeps waiting for the final judgment. This teaching is also called the doctrine of soul sleep. Some have said that the soul goes into an intermediate place. In this place, so the say, the souls of believers enjoy a measure of reward but not equal to their final and full reward in heaven. On the other hand, the souls of unbelievers, this teaching states, suffer a degree of punishment but not equal to their future judgment in hell. Some also have taught that there is a place named Purgatory where Christians with some unrepented sins go to be purified before their entry into heaven. However, we cannot find any biblical basis for these teachings. Instead, the Bible clearly teaches us that the moment a believer dies, his soul goes straight to be with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor. 5:1, 6, 8; Phil. 1:23). We shall in the following posts look at how Christian should respond to these erroneous doctrines.

Fourth, a believer’s body returns to earth waiting for the day it will be glorified and reunited to its soul (1 Cor. 15:53-54). I think the fact that one day the dead body will be glorified should be one of the motivating factors for Christians to treat dead bodies with respect. Burial is not just an incidental detail in our lives.

This could spark a debate on whether Christians should bury or cremate. I will weigh in only by making a confession. I have always believed that burial is more ideal. I also believe that I can argue from Scripture that burial is preferable than cremation. I had strong reservations towards cremation until one day when I was talking to a fellow Christian who is from one of the Asian countries. In our conversation we somehow arrived at the topic of cremation and he told me that in his country, more especially in his area, they don’t have enough land for cemeteries so even Christians cremate.

That conversations helped me clear some of the prejudice I had towards Christians who practice cremation. It helped me to understand that not all Christians who practice cremation prefer it to burial rather there are some factors that compel them. So, if there weren’t any valid reasons for cremation, I would have argued that Christians should shun it.

 

 

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Cultivating a Heavenly Outlook

Having seen the importance of being heavenly-minded, we need then to answer the question: how can we develop and cultivate a constant reflection of heaven in our daily lives?

First, we can do that by having regular meditations upon the glories of heaven. Deliberately take time each day to reflect upon the splendors of heaven and remind yourself that nothing you know or have experienced in this life can be compared to the glory of heaven. The beauties of heaven include an everlasting joy (Matt. 25:23). There are so many things that bring joy in our life here on earth yet there also many things that try to deflate this joy. But in heaven we will have eternal joy.

Related to eternal joy, heaven is also a place of no tears and sorrows (Rev. 21:4). Ever since the fall, sorrow and tears have been part and parcel of humanity. Sin has brought so much brokenness in the world that a day can hardly pass by without feeling its ugly effects. We shed tears and sorrows engulf our hearts as we experience the curse of the fall. But in the new heavens and new earth, the curse and its effects will be ultimately removed hence we will have no reason to weep and grieve.

Heaven is also a place of rest (Heb. 4:9; Rev. 14:13). One of the reasons I love the Sabbath or Sunday is that it does not only give me more time to worship the Lord both in public and in private but also time to rest from my labours. The author of Hebrews tells us that our earthly Sabbath is a shadow of the real rest to come. In heaven we will experience true rest and we will worship the Lord unceasingly.

Heaven is also a place where we will see God face to face (Matt. 5:8; Rev. 22:3-4). On this side of heaven, we know that no one can see God and live (Ex. 33:20). Of course, God revealed himself and dwelt among us in Christ and as John writes, “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father” (1:14). Yet when Christ came on earth, he did not come in his full glory. He came as a man of sorrows. His appearance was more of a humble servant than the conquering King whom John saw in Revelation 1:12-18. But in heaven we will see God face to face in his full glory. How that will look like is beyond me to speculate, but it is one of the major reasons I long for heaven.

Heaven is also a place where our souls and bodies will be made perfect (Hebrews 12:23; 1 Cor. 15:42-44). Everyday, I feel the heaviness of sin in my life. I know the right things I am supposed to do; however, I don’t always do them. There are times that temptations and sin conquer me. I believe this is also true for many Christians if not all Christians. In addition, our current bodies are also constantly wearing out due to the effects of the fall (2 Cor. 4:16). But in heaven, both our souls and bodies will be made perfect.

Oh, what a sweet place heaven is! So, if we can take time to regularly reflect on these glories, it is impossible that we should not have a heavenly out look.

Second, we can develop a heavenly outlook by making heaven a regular subject of our conversations. Richard Baxter in his book Saints’ Everlasting Rest bemoans the fact that Christians can meet and part without ever talking about heaven. “It is a pity that Christians should ever meet together without some talk of their meeting in heaven, or the way to it, before they part…Get together then fellow Christians, and talk of the affairs of your country and kingdom, and comfort one another with such words.”

Third, always remember that our day of entry into heaven is nearer than we often think. As you hear or see your clock tick, be reminded that every tick is drawing you closer to heaven if you are in Christ. It could be right this minute or second. Christ reminds us: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). So, fellow Christians, think of heaven regularly and always be ready to enter into the glory of your Master.

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So Heavenly Minded and No Earthly Good?

Last week we began looking at individual eschatology and some of the reasons why this doctrine is rarely discussed among Christians. Today, we pick up by considering the spiritual benefits that come when we constantly reflect upon the glory to come.

One of the lies that the world wants Christians to believe is that they can be “so heavenly minded that there are of no earthly good.” However, the opposite is true. Christians can never be of earthly good until they are heavenly minded. John Calvin writes, “If that hope (of going to heaven) be deeply seated in our mind, it is impossible that it should not lead us to devote ourselves wholly to God. On the contrary, they who do not cease to live to the world and to the flesh never have actually tasted what is the worth of the promise of eternal life.

A Christian should always live with one leg in this life and another up in the air ready to step into glory. Our prayer should always be like that of Jonathan Edwards, “O God, stamp my eyeballs with eternity.” Indeed, may God stamp eternity not just on our eyeballs but also on our minds, ears, hands, soul, feet, and the whole of our being so that the hope of glory should always before us.

The spiritual benefits that come with constant contemplation of the future glory include: a motivation to pursue holiness in our daily lives. How can a Christian contemplate about the land in which he will sin no more and deliberately live in sin? How can we contemplate the eternity in the presence of our Holy Father and willfully give ourselves to sin? Just as sin will keep us from reflecting on heavenly glory, reflecting on heavenly glory will also keep us from sin. Moreover, the author of Hebrews reminds us that without holiness (in this life), we won’t see God in heaven (Heb. 12:14).

Second, constant reflection of heavenly glory is a sign of true conversion and adds to the assurance of our salvation. This is what Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 1. In the chapter, Paul writes that one of the reasons he is convinced that the Thessalonians are truly saved is that they are constantly living with the hope of glory. “For we know, brothers, loved by God, that he has chosen you because…” He mentions various reasons and at the end of the chapters adds one more reason: “(you) wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:4, 10).

Third, constant reflection of our blessed hope will make us resist getting comfortable in this world and conforming to its standards. It will enable us to realize that this life is just but a tent. “For we know that if our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in heavens” (2 Cor. 5:1).

Fourth, constant reflection of heaven will bring comfort in times of trials and afflictions. When a believer considers what Christ has prepared for him in heaven, the sorrows of this world would seem as a fleeting shadow. The sorrows will be like labour pains, which last for a while and turn into greater joy when a baby is born. Apostle Peter writing to the persecuted Jewish Christians comforts them with the truth of heavenly glory and says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).

Lastly but not least, constant reflection of our eternity in heaven fosters love for our neighbors both believers and unbelievers. Knowing that we will spend eternity with our neighbors who are Christians changes how we treat each other here on earth. It will often, by the grace of God, lead us to love them as we love ourselves. For our unbelieving neighbors, a constant reflection of our future glory motivates us to share the gospel with them because we realize that without faith in Christ they can’t taste this glory but will be subjected to the eternal wrath of God.

But how can we cultivate this constant reflection of heaven in our daily lives? This is what we will look at in the next post, the Lord willing.

 

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