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God Opens Hearts

Saturday, January 15, 2022

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.

Acts 16:14

The book of Acts shows us, among many other things, the wide response to the gospel in the first century. Luke’s record describes how people came to believe and follow Jesus Christ, giving us an invaluable pattern today. Though each situation is unique there are several elements which are always present when a person is converted: someone is preaching the good news while someone is listening to it with God at work in the process.

Take the conversion of Lydia. Paul preached, Lydia listened, and “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” (Acts 16:14) The preacher, the message, the listener and God all worked together resulting in Lydia’s salvation.

Hearts are opened by God — God is the initiator and author of salvation. He is at work opening hearts and minds (cf. Lk. 24:45), drawing sinners to himself for salvation (Jn. 3:5; 6:44; 12:32). The Lord promised that when the Holy Spirit would come, he would “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” (Jn. 16:8) How does God affect hearts like that today?

God opens hearts through the gospel — Salvation comes through the message of the gospel (Rom. 1:16; 2 Thess. 2:14). People believe the gospel when it comes to them “not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” (1 Thess. 1:5) As Paul preached to Lydia, God’s Spirit was working on her heart through the gospel to convict and convert her.

God opens hearts through preaching — For Lydia to have heard the saving message in the first place necessitated a messenger (Rom. 10:13-17). While God was at work in the process, this in no way lessened Paul’s responsibility to preach and persuade Lydia to receive the gospel (2 Cor. 5:20; 6:1; cf. Ezek. 3:16-27).

God opens hearts through love not coercion — God’s activity in no way removed Lydia’s responsibility to “repent and believe the gospel.” (Mk. 1:15) We mustn’t mistakenly pit God’s activity over against human responsibility in regard to salvation. Scripture teaches that the two work in concert. In God’s wisdom, he has devised a way to save us while not overriding our will in the process. The door of Lydia’s heart was not pried open. Jesus does not barge in uninvited; he lovingly knocks on the door of our heart (Rev. 3:20).

In the gospel, God both proves his love and calls us to love (1 Pet. 1:22-25). This life of love we are called to is a gift we may accept or reject (Rom. 6:23). Since love cannot be coerced, God gives us the dignity of choice (Josh. 24:15; Deut. 30:19). Making this gift available to all ensures that those who ask, receive, those who seek, find, and those who knock, it will be opened to them (Mt. 7:7-8).

The human choice of obedience works in cooperation with God resulting in salvation (Acts 16:14), while the human choice of rebellion colludes with Satan resulting in condemnation (2 Cor. 4:4).

Paul wrote of those who do not believe the gospel, “in their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel.” (2 Cor. 4:4) This blindness is both self-inflicted and imposed upon them making them both culprits and victims. The gospel, therefore, is the ultimate litmus test; our response to the priceless gift of God’s Son reveals the condition of our heart (Mt. 13:1-23). This system of salvation by grace through faith ensures that no one who earnestly desires eternal life will ever miss it. And best of all, because salvation is a gift, when anyone is saved, God gets all the credit!

Raising the Bar

Saturday, January 08, 2022

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue…

2 Peter 1:3-5a

Spiritual growth takes two things: God’s activity and our cooperation, in that order. Peter presents God’s plan for our spiritual growth at the beginning of his second epistle. In Christ, God provides the raw ingredients (1:3) and the motivation to grow (1:4). Peter then calls upon us to respond by putting these gifts to use.

We are to “make every effort” (1:8) and “be all the more diligent” (1:10) to “grow” (3:18) in the eight ways he outlines in 1:5-7. As we grow in these areas, we resemble our Lord more and more and partake more deeply of his “divine nature” (1:4). The combination of human exertion and divine grace is the key by which we gain entrance into God’s “eternal kingdom” (1:11).

One of the areas we must grow in is “virtue.” Virtue is excellence, a general term describing a quality which is outstanding, surpassing ordinary standards. We can easily tell the difference between something that is ordinary and something that is excellent. Certain cars, restaurants, athletes or musicians simply excel beyond the average. In the context of the letter, Peter describes moral excellence, a quality of character that is extraordinary. Our character is who we are when no one is looking. How can we grow in moral excellence? Paul’s words to the Romans are helpful:

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)

First, we must renovate our mind. Our ethics begin with our thinking. Our minds need renewed before we can become more virtuous people because they have been wired according to this “world.” Our culture can no longer dictate our thinking. We must abandon the world’s ethical system and adopt God’s. Therefore, before our “works” (actions) can become more virtuous, our “mind” must be “renewed” (rewired) according to “the will of God.”

Second, we must elevate our standards. Discerning God’s will and discovering “what is good and acceptable and perfect” raises the bar of our moral expectations. Before, when we were still “following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1-3), we set the bar much too low. Our sense of right and wrong was not fixed (Jdg. 21:25). We measured ourselves by one another (2 Cor. 10:12) making us our own moral authority (Gen. 3:5). But in adopting God’s kingdom-standards, the bar is raised. Jesus calls us to a deeper righteousness, the highest ethical standard (Mt. 5:20, 48).

Third, we must activate our response. Educating our minds is not enough. For our knowledge to be “fruitful” (Col. 1:10), it must be put to the test. That is why Paul says it is only “by testing,” that is, putting God’s will into practice in the real world, that we can experience “what is good and acceptable and perfect” ourselves. Putting God’s will into practice is part of “discerning” it. The word “discern” (dokimazo) can also mean “prove.” It often has the sense of finding out the worth of something by putting it to use in a practical way (Lk. 14:19; 1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 8:22; 1 Tim. 3:10).

By living out God’s will, as Jesus did, we come to learn that his high standard of morality is the way human beings were meant to live all along. Let us then raise the bar and strive to live more like Jesus.

Is It Genuine or Generic?

Saturday, January 01, 2022

I find the marketing ingenuity of off-brand products humorous. Instead of Cheerios, there are Crispy Oats. Instead of Superman, there is Specialman. Instead of Dr. Pepper, there is Dr. Perky. Instead of Rice Crispy Treats, there are Crispy Rice Treats. They get as close to the genuine article as possible without infringing on the trademark, perhaps to dupe undiscerning shoppers.

We have a tendency to do the same thing with Scripture. There are phrases which sound quasi-Christian, which seem to have a similar flavor as the real thing but are, in actuality, knock-offs. As Christians, we must be careful not to trade God’s genuine promises for generic sentiments. Removing a verse from its context removes part of what that verse means. Or worse, we may change the wording of a verse altogether so that what we end up with is a generic, spiritual-sounding sentiment which lacks the power and applicability of God’s word. Are you rooting your faith in God’s genuine promises or are you settling for generic religious-sounding sentiments? Here is an example of such a sentiment.

“Everything happens for a reason.” We use this phrase to bring comfort to people who have gone through some bad experience. Their experience will turn out alright in the end because, we say, “everything happens for a reason.” The bad will lead to good because God is in control of the situation. Between the lines of such a sentiment is the belief that everything that happens happens according to God’s plan. But this is not necessarily true and the Bible will not allow us to hold such a view.

There are many things which happen that are opposed to God’s will and are not according to his plan. Slavery, child-trafficking, prostitution, wars, murders, pandemics, etc. all lie outside of God’s expressed will. To be fair, God permits these things to happen and will, in the fulness of time, bring them to a final end in the Judgment. But not everything that happens is because God would have it so. There is a difference between God’s desired will (what he wants [1 Tim. 2:4]) and his permissive will (what he allows [Acts 14:16]). But God does have a fixed will, an eternal and unchanging purpose.

The phrase “everything happens for a reason” is really a generic parody of Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:28, which says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This says something quite different than “everything happens for a reason.”

In the book of Romans, Paul outlines God’s eternal plan to justify Jews and Gentiles by faith in Christ and unite them into one multi-ethnic, new covenant family. Paul spends time in his letter to the Romans explaining that the law of Moses was an important part of God’s “purpose” but it wasn’t the key because it depended on our “flesh,” which is weak. Rather, it was always God’s plan to keep his promises through Jesus, who would fulfill the law, justify those who have faith in him and give them life by his Spirit.

That’s why “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Although God doesn’t cause everything to happen, nothing that does happen takes him by surprise or catches him unprepared or is able to thwart his eternal “purpose.” God is able to hijack “all things,” even evil, terrible, and sad things, and work them “together for good.” But for whose good? “For those who love God… who are called according to his purpose.” (see Gen. 50:20)

God’s plan is to “conform” us “to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29-30ff). So, while everything that happens is not good, God will bring good from everything that happens “to those who love him.” He can use every situation to make us more like Jesus which is God’s purpose for us. Let’s not settle for generic, religious-sounding phrases but rest our hope fully in the genuine word of God!

Pleasant Words

Saturday, December 25, 2021

“The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.

Gracious words are like are a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.”

(Proverbs 16:23-24)

Gracious speech is both palatable and pragmatic, easy to swallow and good to follow. Pleasant speech has the power to persuade others and cause real change. Persuasion is a skill that can be developed through the practice of gracious speech: "The wise of heart is called discerning, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness" (Prov. 16:21). Because of the source of our speech (originating in ourheart, Mt. 15:18), our choice of words has an eternal impact as Jesus made abundantly clear:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt. 12:33-37)

James, combining the wisdom of Proverbs and the teaching of Jesus, also spoke about the power of the tongue (Jas. 3:1-12). He called the tongue a "restless evil," a "world of iniquity," the one thing human beings have never been able to tame. But instead of excusing bad language, James teaches us that what we cannot tame God can. By giving us wisdom and cleansing the source of our speech God can purify our language and teach us gracious speech.

The tone and tact of our speech is just as important as the words themselves. Paul wrote, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person" (Col. 4:6). Timing could make all the difference. After all, the only difference between a fresh salad and a pile of slimy garbage is time. Therefore, “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Prov. 25:11) and "to make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!" (Prov. 15:23)

"Be quick to hear, slow to speak" (Jas. 1:19). We would do better by listening more and speaking less. Speak only when words are necessary and make your words count. With the help of our gracious Lord, we can choose to speak pleasant words, easy to swallow and good to follow.

A Tale of Two Men

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left… One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:32-33, 39-43

All four gospel accounts record that Jesus was crucified with two other men. This took place on a hill called “The Skull” probably due to a nearby rock shaped like a human skull. A fitting place for the darkest hour of human history. The authors do not name the two men crucified with Jesus but reveal only that they were “criminals,” literally malefactors, evil-doers, good-for-nothings. We don’t know their precise crimes but death by crucifixion was a punishment reserved for rebels against the Empire. These men may have been insurrectionists executed as threats to Rome. The crucified bodies were signs which said, in effect, “This is what we do to people who rebel against Caesar.” Crucifixion was an effective deterrent to rebellion and a bloody reminder of who was in charge.

In contrast to the guilty men surrounding him, Jesus was innocent and was not suffering for his own sins but the sins of others. Yet, in fulfillment of prophecy, all the abuse was hurled at him (Psa. 22:6-8; Isa. 53:12). Though his crucifixion looked as if Jesus were cursed by God and had failed to establish God’s kingdom, it was actually part of his enthronement and God’s eternal plan (Lk. 9:22; 17:25; 18:31-33). Those who wished to thwart God’s purposes by killing Jesus actually fulfilled God’s plan (Acts 2:23; 3:17-18; 5:30-31). Despite appearances, the cross was part of God's crowning victory not his defeat (Col. 2:15).

These two men crucified with Jesus teach us an important lesson.

One man mocked the Messiah. Rather than fearing God, he ridiculed the agent of his own salvation, assumed Jesus was guilty when he was innocent (identifying himself with Jesus, Lk. 23:39), failed to see that the Savior would be delivered not from death but through death, and only wanted deliverance from physical death.

The other man was promised Paradise. He admitted his guilt, recognized Jesus’ innocence and the spiritual nature of his kingdom, and surrendered to Jesus asking him to “remember” him when he came into his kingdom. He knew who Jesus was and what he came to do. He died with Jesus in a way that the other man did not and so received God’s amazing grace.

This text confronts us with the question, Which man are we? The scene on Calvary is a miniature picture of the entire gospel story. Jesus is still the rejected but sinless Savior. His cross is still the symbol not only of his rejection by men but of his love for all men. And every person corresponds to one of the two men crucified with Jesus. Like those two men, we all are guilty and deserve death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23), but Jesus stands in the middle offering us life.

Will we be like the one who simply dies, not seeing Jesus for who he is, never humbling ourselves, never changing our minds? If so, we will die in our rebellion without hope. Or will we be like the second criminal, who admitted his guilt and entrusted himself to Jesus? If so, we can received the promise of eternal life too. Both men were crucified and died with Jesus, but only one would live with him. Have you died with Jesus in baptism so that you can live with him in the resurrection? (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 6:3-4)

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