On This Rock (Christ Shaped Church Part II)

The Church

The church is central in the Bible. Most of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches and the parts that aren’t either tell the story of the church, lay its foundation, or predict its future. Even in the Old Testament, there is a way to understand Israel as God’s church in the world. From beginning to end the Bible is a thoroughly church-centered book, which means the Christian life is a thoroughly church-centered life.

This truth is often misunderstood. I am not arguing for some sort of ecclesiastical formalism, or depreciating the individual Christian life. I am also not defending everything that can be or has been done in the name of the church. Sadly, there are plenty of true stories of ecclesiastical abuse and unfaithfulness, but my plea is this: don’t give up on the church. Don’t lose hope in something that Jesus loves. The promise of the church endures, because Jesus guarantees the promise.

This series is a study of 1 Peter 1:22-2:10. Any number of passages would serve as excellent studies of the church, but there is something poetic about studying Peter’s writings. It was Peter, after all, to whom Jesus made the statement in Matthew 16:18:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

1 Peter 1:22-2:10 is a deeply rich section of Scripture concerning the local church. Several themes coexist and intertwine with one another in such a way that a quick reading risks missing the thrust of the whole. The passage begins with community (love one another earnestly, 1:22) and ends with community (Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people, 2:10). The heart of the passage is about community as well (As you come to him… you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, 2:4-5a).

Here’s the key theme of this entire series: The only answer to our longing to belong is found in Christ’s Christ-shaped community: the church. Our goal in the next article will be to give that phrase meaning.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

The Prodigal Shepherd

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(By Matt Foreman)

I have only ever written one poem in my adult life, the one below…  I actually don’t even really like poetry all that much.  But back in 2003 I was responsible for a Christmas Eve message and had writer’s block.  While I would never normally replace a sermon with a poem, since it was Christmas Eve, and I was having so much trouble, I decided to try my hand at a poem.  This one wrote itself in about an hour.  (That’s never happened again.)  It’s an imaginative portrayal of the experience of a shepherd near Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth…

The Prodigal Shepherd

A man sat still in the cold night air
on rock cold hard, his feet were bare
and stared into the sleepless world
down at his flock within their fold
and thought upon some distant star
what trick of mind had brought thus far
him to this place of fruitless breath
of endless toil and lonely death.

Long had been his journey here
from angry home and mother’s tear
and hard and cold his heart had been
to look on her with mirthless grin.
To seek for glory was his want
For famous story was his hunt
Yet naught had come to him but this
To look at sheep in brainless bliss.

He thought with pain at what had past
his guilt, his shame, his vileness
those he had hurt, those he had robbed
the children left to violent sobs.
He bowed his head, they overtook
his body cringed and swayed and shook
and cast upon the dark cold ground
a rain of tears and empty sound.

O Lord, what mercy can this worm
have hope to gain or swipe or earn?
That man and pregnant woman past
as poor as dirt and yet no cast
of sorrow, pain upon their face
but hope and joy and eagerness.
Yet naught for me, no hope, no joy
no reason expectance to employ.

Did not the priest say, just this day
God’s promises are on the way,
His Own Anointed, David’s son
would raise up sword, the battle won,
would claim the throne and raise his race
all the world bow to their face.
Yet not for you, the priest did say,
no place for sinners on that day.

No place for shepherds, dirty, vile,
covered with muck and dirt and bile.
You have received what you deserve,
no place for you on glory’s curve.
And knew it true, as he did say,
I knew it true as clear as day.
No mercy can there be for me,
A prodigal and righteous free.

The night was still, the air was cold,
no sheep were braying in the fold
when suddenly the air seemed thin
he struggled so his breath to win
as shimmering the air began
to twist and turn and brightness ran
about the hillside to and fro
the stars were darkened with a glow.

Shouts rang out from shepherds near
as on the hillside did appear
a being clad in raiment bright
forgot in daylight was the night.
Hard it was to see his face
yet clear as crystal was the grace
that flowed like honey from his tongue
and shook and soothed and stung and sung.

To all the shepherds he did speak,
Yet thought the man with conscience weak,
he speaks to me, it seemed so clear
for me this being did appear.
And falling to his face he cried,
Lord, mercy on this mountainside.
With fear I look upon this face
Condemned I stand and without grace.

And then they heard the angel say,
Fear not, for news I bring this day,
of such a kind as never heard
through voice of man or spoken word.
And yet to you this day I cry
with glory to the God most high
joy comes upon the world this night
joy such as devil will affright.

In David’s city, that place of lore,
that prophets long did speak before,
is born this night a Shepherd great
who bearing stripe and suffering hate
will seek to gain and win his own
his wandering sheep and wayward son
him Savior, sinful men will call
Messiah, Lord, and before him fall.

And this will be a sign for you,
to know him right and see him true
as he who comes to be like you
the lowly meek and frightened few
To bring to naught the pride of man
the wise man’s thought, the strong man’s hand
In manger lowly, meek and mild,
Will you find God’s only child.

And you, the poor, the dust of earth
will proclaim Messiah’s birth
and heaven’s doors and gates will sing
as you approve his offering
and in your hearts, no longer cold,
are brought back to the Father’s fold.
And for eternal ages sing
Glory be to Christ the King!

An echo rang across the skies
As up above where eagle flies,
A multitude were seen to wing
their way across the heaven to sing.
Then light was gone, the night was cast
back into darkness at the last.
But glory was felt by all at hand
as they stared across the land.

Yet, breath came thin still to the man
with conscience weak and pallor wan
his bones grew brittle as he sought
his thoughts to order what his ears had caught
And then a dawn danced to his face
condemned no longer, saved by grace
His voice rang out, his lungs were clear,
For me this message DID appear!

Come must we to Bethlehem,
to see this Son to praise this Lamb.
On me, on me God’s favor rests
Despite my sin and sore distress.
For I will see this Savior’s face
This Babe will smile with forgiving grace.
And it will be the face of God
to save me from this guilty sod.

And near another voice rang out
and soon they all began to shout
and clap and hug and run and sing
with glory to the newborn King.

And heaven’s gates were opened wide
And like the turning of the tide,
It has begun, the angels said.
And death itself will soon be dead.

And heaven holds, not once a year
But every day, when sinners hear
a Christmas party begins to start
when Christ is born in sinful heart.

Written by Matt Foreman, Dec.24, 2003.

Longing to Belong (Christ Shaped Church Part 1)

The Church

Have you ever been in a place and among a people where you truly felt that you belonged? Can think back to a precious family memory, maybe a Christmas morning or a Thanksgiving meal? Have you experienced that deep sense of belonging through sports, finding it in the camaraderie of mutual victory (or common defeat)? Has there been a particular groups of friends that know you inside out, that laugh at all the same jokes and cry at all the same stories?

On the flipside, have you ever felt deeply and desperately alone? I think we often miss the point of loneliness. Real loneliness isn’t utter solitude. It’s not found on a two-week hike in a remote mountain range. It’s not hidden on the dark side of the moon. It’s not even a rainy afternoon without reliable wifi. The loneliest place in the world is actually a crowded room, when you believe you don’t belong. There is no isolation deeper than having community all around you and still feeling like you’re on the outside looking in.

The Inconsolable Secret

The Christian Philosopher C. S. Lewis captured something universal in his essay The Weight of Glory:

The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality is part of our inconsolable secret.[1]

Lewis touches upon a common reality, what he calls our inconsolable secret, the shared fact we all desperately want to have a place we fit in and belong. Communally, we long for community. The human heart is like a puzzle piece that will never be complete on it’s own, one that can be quite easily damaged by trying to force itself where it doesn’t really belong. The phenomena we call nostalgia testifies to the truth that we all, deep down, just want to go home.

There are millions of false or halfway answers to our longing to belong. There are crowds upon crowds that we can join to try and quench our inconsolable secret, but they never work because what we are really seeking is not a crowd, but a community. There’s a very important difference between those two things.

A crowd is a place to get lost in; a community is a place to be found.

A crowd is a place to visit; a community is a place to come home.

A crowd a place to be a stranger; a community is a place to be family

Christ Shaped Church  

The only full solution to our longing to belong is found in the Christ-shaped community of the church. That is an audacious claim, but a congregation is called to be a community that believes it and lives it out. When it does, even this audacious claim can come marvelously true, but only insofar as the unity and core of the local church is Christ himself. That is what sets the church apart from any other gathering on earth – only the church has the personal promise of Christ that he will be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)

God’s mission for the world is bound up in his people, and he binds his people together in the church. In articles to come, we will explore the ways that Jesus’ presence reshapes his people into his own image on earth. In so doing, we will encounter the answer to our inconsolable secret, and finally fulfill our longing to belong.

(by: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory, available for free online at http://www.verber.com/mark/xian/weight-of-glory.pdf

Orphans Adopted

The Gospel, Theology

(By: Chris Marley)

A world of orphans
	Alienated
Long lost sinners
	Isolated
A global orphanage
	And angry mob
Of shaking fists
	And attempts to lob
Stones of furious words
	Like “God is dead”
Hoping to drown out
	Existential dread
Heaving bricks through windows
	Of their own intellect
Shouting “follow us”
	To every tribe and sect
“We will tear down God
	like twisted iconoclasts
And replace Him ourselves
	And we will stand fast
On the day of judgment
	That will never come
Compile our numbers
	To a powerful sum”
But yet there are some
	Who hear the truth
Later in song but
	At first uncouth
First, the conscience
	That screams out the Law
Breaking facades
	And leaving them raw
Exposing unrighteousness
	Revealing unworthiness
The calling of “lawlessness”
	Shows them their life’s a mess
Broken and destitute
	Like Rahab the prostitute
Pleading for mercy
	They cannot deserve
Pleading for grace
	From the one they don’t serve
Like dogs for crumbs
	From the master’s table
Drowning in guilt
	They know they’re unable
To earn love
	From their God
Since their ancestor
	Was formed from the sod
Breathed into life
	Yet broke the law
Tore fruit from the branches
	And finally saw
What evil was
	Within himself
And though once high
	On sacred shelf
He fell, with his wife,
	And all posterity
Fell broken and bent
	From that prosperity
Creating the orphans
	Lost from their God
Repressing the truth
	They ever applaud
Their works
	To drown out the noise
Clinging to riches
	Their lusts and their toys
Yet there are some
	Who from past eternal
God chose to save
	From fate infernal
And sent His Son
	In the fullness of time
To clothe them himself
	In His works sublime
To turn away wrath
	And absorb it alone
Now cursed was the one
	Who once sat on the throne
Cursed by their sin
	Through imputation
Drinking the cup
	For their salvation
That orphans convicted
	Could now be adopted
By grace through faith
	Their salvation allotted
For they are made heirs
	Through redemption applied
Eternal inheritance
	Through Christ now supplied
Calling, “Abba, Father”
	Who wipes away tears
And approaching the throne
	With boldness, not fear
Pitied
	Protected
		Provided for
			Chastened
Sealed to that Day
	By everlasting salvation
Not of themselves
	What they’ve done
		Or will do
No man can stand
	To receive his own due
It’s not what they’ve done
	But what they have heard
Of what Christ has done
	And salvation assured
In the Gospel of Peace
	To orphans long lost
Through faith we now see
	That adoption’s cost
In the cry, “It is finished!”
	Made from the cross
And now He is risen
	In Heaven he waits
For when angels carry us
	Past those pearl gates
To glory eternal
	New heavens, new earth
Changed out like a garment
	In cosmos rebirth
Where the children adopted
	By faith and by grace
In the arms of their Father
	Will then know their place

Chris Marley is the pastor of Miller Valley Baptist Church in Prescott, AZ.

Finally Blameless: Thomas Brooks on the Christian’s Final Judgment

Christian Living, Church History, Devotional, The Gospel, Theology

It’s a foundational tenet of Christianity that all people are destined for a final judgment at the end of this age. Gospel hope hinges on this fact: those in Christ will pass that judgment and be found fit for heaven. The reason for this is the gospel itself, the spiritual reality that Christ satisfied the curse on his people’s behalf when he was crucified on the cross, and furthermore, that his righteousness is imputed to them as a free gift by faith. On the basis of this gloriously good news, a Christian knows that his final judgment day need not be a terror, it is the day when God will fulfill all the final promises of the gospel. This is Christianity 101 (which is typically the most important part).

Yet there is a question related to this final judgment that Christians sometimes ponder without full clarity. The question is this: on the final day of judgment, although we know that all who are in Christ will be found in the final analysis to be cleansed of sin, covered by Christ’s righteousness, and thus be blameless in the sight of God; in the process of that verdict being rendered, will a Christian’s sins, both before and after conversion, be publically made known to all creation?

In my ministry as a pastor, I’ve been asked this question more than once. Sometimes the person is asking because of a guilty conscience from hidden sin, and so the best answer is to examine the call to mortify sin in our lives. Gospel promises can never be biblically used as a cover for unrighteousness (see Romans 6:1).

But other times, the question is being asked because even in a regenerate mind, the staggering reality of the grace of God can be hard to believe.

How forgiven are we, really?

How thorough is salvation?

How complete is my justification?

In other words, does the gospel really clean my record out completely, or are there still indictments that remain? Luther was right when he said the Christian is simultaneously righteous and a sinner, but do we sometimes so emphasize the latter half of that maxim that we miss the full grace of the former?

In my life as a Christian, I’ve asked these questions in my own heart. Since you’re reading this article, I assume you’ve asked them too, or that if you haven’t, they have at least piqued your interest enough in this article that you’re still here reading. You are, after all, still reading.

We’re not the first ones to ponder this. Thomas Brooks, a Puritan author and pastor of the seventeenth-century, addressed this question directly. Brooks wrote:

But here an apt question may be moved… Whether at this great day [the final judgment at the end of the age], the sins of the saints shall be brought into the judgment of discussion and discovery, or no? Whether the Lord will in this day publically manifest, proclaim, and make mention of the sins of his people, or no?[1]

Let’s look at how Thomas Brooks answered the question. Although the following thoughts belong to Brooks, I have updated the language, condensed the content, and edited for modern readability.[2]

*****

I humbly judge, according to my present light, that he will not; for the four following reasons:

  1. From the description of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46

This first reason is drawn from the Christ’s judicial proceedings in the last day, as they are described so clearly in Matthew 25. There Christ brings to light only the good works his sheep have done, but takes no notice of their spots and blots, their stains and blemishes, nor the infirmities and weaknesses and wickedness of his people (Duet. 32:4-6).

  1. From Christ’s vehement objection that any of his people should ever come into judgment

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)[3]

Notice that none of the gospel writers use this expression truly, truly, except for John, and he never uses it unless it is a matter of great weight and importance. He uses it to show how earnestly his spirit yearns for the thing said, and to grab our attention, and to put the thing said beyond all question and all contradiction. He is saying that it is absolutely out of the question that true believers will come into judgment, truly, truly it shall not be!

  1. Because not exposing our sins is most in keeping with the many precious expressions that we find scattered like shining and sparkling pearls throughout all Scripture

These glorious passages are of seven main types:

(1) Those passages which speak of God blotting out the sins of his people

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you. (Isaiah 44:22)

Who is this that blots out transgressions? It is the one who has the keys of heaven and hell on his belt, who opens and no man shuts, who shuts and no man opens; it is the one who has the power of death and life, of condemning and absolving, of killing and making alive – this is the one who blots out transgressions. If some servant blotted out an indictment, that may do a little good; but when the king and judge himself blots out the indictment with his own hand the indictment is gone forever. This is the reality and joy of every believer.

(2) Those passages which gloriously assert that God remembers our sins no more

And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

By this God means that our sins will be completely forgiven, never again mentioned, never taken notice of, and not mentioned ever again. God has a memory of iron and never forgets the sins of the wicked; yet he promises to never remember the sins of the righteous.

(3) Those passages which speak of our sins being cast into the depths of the sea and behind the back of God

He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)

When sin is pardoned, the remission can never be repealed. Pardoned sins can never be brought before God against a pardoned man ever again; this is what these figures of speech are meant to teach. If our sins were cast into a river, they could perhaps be brought back. If they were cast upon the sea, they might be found in the drift and brought back to land. But when they are cast into the very depths, to the very bottom of the sea, they shall never again float back up to the surface.

In this metaphor the Lord is teaching us that pardoned sins shall rise no more, they shall be seen no more, they shall never count again; indeed, God will drown them so deep even he will not see them a second time.

Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back. (Isaiah 38:17)

This last phrase is again a figure of speech, borrowed from the way that men cast behind their backs things they do not care to see, regard, or remember. Although our own sins are ever before our face, the Lord casts them behind his back. An earthly father soon forgets and casts behind his back the sins that his child keenly remembers. So too it is with our Heavenly Father.

(4) Those passage which sweetly speak of God pardoning the sins of his people

I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. (Jeremiah 33:8)

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. (Micah 7:18)

The Hebrew word here translated pardon means a taking away. When God pardons sin he takes it completely away: even if you search for it, you wont find it.

In those days and in that time, declares the Lord, iniquity shall be sought in Israel, and there shall be none, and sin in Judah, and none shall be found, for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant. (Jeremiah 50:20)

As Micah said above, God passes over the sin of his people. Like a man deep in thought, or a busy man caught up in business doesn’t notice what’s right in front of him; like David didn’t notice Mephibosheth’s physical defects because he saw so much of his dear friend Jonathon in him; so too God beholds in his people the glorious image of his Son, and takes no notice of all our faults and failures. This is what enabled Luther to say, “Do with me what you will, since you have pardoned my sin.”

And what is it to pardon sin, but not to mention it?

(5) Those expressions of forgiving and covering

The blessing of Psalm 32:1 (Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sins is covered) is, in the original Hebrew, in the plural: blessednesses. It is a plurality of blessings, a chain of pearls. A similar statement in made in Psalm 85:2, again using the metaphor of covering.

Covering is the opposite of disclosing. That which is covered is hidden. This metaphor is all around us: the dead are covered up in the ground, clothes cover up our bodies, The Egyptians were covered over by the Red Sea, a great cleft in the earth is filled up and covered over with dirt, the mercy seat as well was presided over by a symbolic covering. All these metaphors show the same essential truth: the Lord will not look, he will not see, he will not notice the sins he has pardoned; he will never again bring them to his judgment seat.

Like a rebel pardoned by a gracious prince, the pardoned person will never hear of and never have to give account for his sins, ever again. When Caesar was painted he would conceal his scars and blemishes by covering them up with his hands. God puts his hands over all his people’s scars and blemishes; all that remains is what is good and lovely.

(6) Those expressions of not imputing sin

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. (Psalm 32:2, see also Romans 4:6-8)

To not impute iniquity is to not charge it against a person, to not credit it to them. This is the precise blessing of pardon: that I will not have my sins brought against me.

(7) That particular promise of Psalm 103

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:11-12)

What a vast distance there is between east and west!

These seven categories of precious promises form the third reason that God will never again bring our sins against us in judgment.

  1. Because Christ exposing our sins seems out of place on that great day, for three reasons.

(1) It seems out of place, given the great glory and solemnity of the day, which for God’s people will be a day of refreshing, a day of restitution, a day of redemption, a day of coronation, as we have already seen. Now, how suitable to this great day of solemnity the exposure of the sins of all the saints would be, I leave the reader to judge.

(2) It seems out of place, given the relationship of Jesus Christ to his people. He is their father, brother, head, husband, friend, and advocate. Now, are not all these relations bound rather to hide and conceal the weakness of their loved ones, at least from the world at large? And is not Christ so much more? He is more a father, brother and friend to us in his spiritual love than the best of all human relationships.

(3) It seems out of place, given what the Lord himself requires of us in this world. The Lord requires that his people cast a covering of love, wisdom, and silence over one another’s weaknesses.

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. (Proverbs 10:12, 1 Peter 4:8)

Love’s covering is very large; love finds a bandage for every wound.

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. (Matthew 18:5)

Would Jesus Christ have us to act toward one another in one way, while he acts in a completely different manner? If it is an evil to expose the weakness and faults of saints in the world, how could it be a glory and virtue for Christ to do the same on the final day of this age?

*****

Brooks goes on to briefly discuss the glory of passing over a transgression, and then ends his answer with this concluding paragraph, which is presented here without major editing or updating of the original style:

The heathens have long since observed, that in nothing man came nearer to the glory and perfection of God himself, than in goodness and clemency. Surely if it be an honor to man, ‘to pass over a transgression,’ it cannot be a dishonor to Christ to pass over the transgressions of his people, he having already buried them in the sea of his blood. Again, saith Solomon, ‘It is the glory of God to conceal a thing,’ (Proverbs 25:2). And why it should not make for the glory of divine love to conceal the sins of the saints in that great day, I know not; and whether the concealing the sins of the saints in that great day will not make most for their joy, and wicked men’s sorrow, for their comfort and wicked men’s terror and torment, I will leave you to judge, and time and experience to decide. And this much for the resolution of that great question.

As Thomas Brooks writes, it is for you the reader to judge his view of the final judgment. Is it biblical or not? If you answer no, at least take care upon what grounds you reject it. Never settle for a shallow view of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. The sea of his blood is deep indeed. The cross is bloody and the tomb is empty. The Christian’s final hope is to be finally blameless in Christ, to his gracious glory, and by his glorious grace.

(By: Nicolas Alford)

[1] Thomas Brooks, The Works of Thomas Brooks, 220.

[2] The full original can be read on pages 220-24 in the Banner of Truth’s The Works of Thomas Brooks, Volume 1.

[3] All Scripture references have been updated to the English Standard Version.

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