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By John Piper — 1 year ago
We are approaching Halloween. It will be here on Sunday. For many, it’s a day about ghosts and ghouls and goblins and pumpkins and candy. But for some of us, the day serves as an annual reminder of the Protestant Reformation. Reformation Day reminds us how Paul’s epistle to the Romans ignited a fire in Martin Luther’s soul, a fire so bold that he stood against an entire religious system that wanted to shut him up and shut him down. It didn’t. Luther gave his life to preach the gospel of justification before a holy God through the vicarious substitution of Jesus Christ. The Reformer epitomizes lionhearted boldness. So where does such boldness come from? And why are sinners so fearful in life? As we move toward Reformation Day, this is a great clip from a 1993 John Piper sermon, a sermon on Proverbs 28:1, which reads, “The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.” It begins with Pastor John mentioning Proverbs 14:16 and talking about the guilty conscience. Here he is.
Bold for Justice
“The fool rages and is bold” (Proverbs 14:16, author’s translation). And the word bold is the same word as in Proverbs 28:1: “The righteous are bold as a lion.” So fools can be bold and the righteous can be bold, which causes me to think — as you find with so many Proverbs — that what is being said here in this verse is that, in general, there’s something about wickedness that kindles fear, and there’s something about righteousness that kindles boldness. But it’s not so absolute that there isn’t a kind of boldness that the wicked can have and there isn’t a kind of timidity that, now and then, the righteous can have.
And we all know that from experience, and we know it from the Bible, that there is a reckless boldness that the wicked have, especially in the pursuit of their wickedness: dirty needles, promiscuous sex, speeding, reckless crime. It takes a lot of stupid boldness to do what many wicked do. They are not often cowardly in the pursuit of sin. They take manifold risks with their lives and their freedom and their eternity.
So there is a kind of boldness that the wicked have; it’s just not the kind that’s being talked about in verse 1. The kind of boldness that’s being talked about here is the boldness that’s required in the atmosphere of justice. And there’s something about wickedness that, in the atmosphere of justice, flees even when there’s no one pursuing. And there’s something about the righteous that is bold as a lion for the cause of justice.
Scared from the Start
What is it about the wicked that makes them flee when no one is pursuing? I think you know the answer to that. We can find it from the Bible. We can find it in our experience. The answer is that a bad conscience, a guilty conscience, an evil conscience, makes the person flee when no one is pursuing. When you see a police car, is your first response gratitude that there are law-keepers? When you play basketball, or used to play basketball or soccer or football, did the way you play affect the response you felt every time the whistle blew? When you’re in a conversation, do you begin to defend yourself even before there’s been any accusation or anything clearly said against what you think? Do you flee because you can hear an accuser where there may even be none?
We flee when we’re not being pursued because we have a bad conscience. There are a lot of things stored up in our lives, bad things that we have done that we have not made right, and a voice inside is telling us that someone is after us, even when they are not. Guilt is the parent of fear, and our conscience is very creative. Conscience creates pursuers where there ought to be some and are not any. The breeze turns into a burglar. The shadows turn into ghosts. Police turn into adversaries. Parents turn into police. God turns into an enemy — all when they are not.
Genesis 3:8 says, “The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” He wasn’t pursuing. He didn’t have a gun. And God said to Adam, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). And Adam said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid” (Genesis 3:10). And we’ve been afraid ever since. We’ve been afraid of him ever since.
“We flee when we’re not being pursued because we have a bad conscience.”
A guilty conscience will turn shadows into phantoms, and ambulances into police cars, and innocent inquiries into indictments, and doorbells into threats, and mailmen into warrant officers, and schoolteachers into wardens, and parents into cross-examiners, and friends into traitors, and simple office memos into termination papers. The conscience is almost infinitely creative, and the wicked flee where there is no one pursuing — but there ought to be. The conscience makes up for what isn’t by creating out of nothing the pursuers we need to have to bring us to justice and repentance and reconciliation and forgiveness with people we’ve wronged.
A guilty conscience creates pursuers where there are none, unless you drown it with alcohol, or numb it with drugs, or blast it with constant loud music, and constant escapes from solitude, or endless denials — “It isn’t there, it isn’t conscience, it doesn’t count, it’s not important; I can live without talking to them” — until you go so far in hardening yourself against this God-given voice that it ceases, and you can no more hear the steps of God in the garden. And that is a dreadful place to be.
Lionhearted in Christ
The righteous ones are the people who trust in the Lord, and not in themselves and their own merit and their own deeds and their own righteousness. They trust in the Lord and his mercy and his steadfast kindness. And then they are the ones who, according to Psalm 32:1–2, have their sins covered, and their iniquities are not imputed to them. Their iniquities simply are not counted because they trust in the Lord. Now that’s who the righteous are in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and everywhere in this universe: the righteous are people who trust in the Lord and bank on Jesus Christ for everything they have and need. And they are as bold as a lion.
“Fear with men is rooted in the fear of not being right with God.”
If you can have that kind of boldness with God like Martin Luther had — so that you know, as you look the almighty, holy, infinitely wise and beautiful God in the face, that he imputes no iniquity to you — you will be as lionhearted as can be with men. Fear with men is rooted in the fear of not being right with God. If you knew God was standing at your right hand with infinite power, with his right hand on your shoulder, you’d be bold as a lion.
Here We Stand
Now I want to take Martin Luther as an example of that. In 1521, the lionheartedness came out. His whole life was one of incredible courage, but let me close with one illustration of his boldness. It was the fall of 1521. It was in the city of Worms. Charles, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and who had the biggest empire since Charlemagne, was there in the cathedral. Fredrick the Wise, the local governor, was there. The Archbishop of Trier, named Eck, was there. And a room at least as large as our sanctuary was filled with lords and nobles. Every one of them was against Martin Luther, and all of them had the capacity to sentence him to death for heresy and treason if he did not recant his criticisms of the Holy Catholic Church.
Eck said, “Do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?” And first in German, and then in Latin so that it could go down in the official register, he responded like this:
Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. [Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.] God help me. Amen. (Here I Stand, 182)
“The righteous are bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). They are as bold as a lion because they are righteous in Christ. They look into the face of God, and they see a smile that imputes to them no iniquity, but rather makes “him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). And standing clothed with the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus, they are as bold as a lion before God and before men.
And my prayer for us in these days as a church is that God, by the gospel of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ through faith, might deliver us from fear of God and fear of men and make us valiant for the truth in this city.
By Bob Kauflin — 10 months ago
“Come, Holy Spirit.”
For many Christians today, that brief prayer is often connected with heightened emotions, unguided-spontaneous experiences, and an intense expectation of God’s nearness. Something unusual and powerful is about to happen.
Inviting the Spirit to come, however, is no new phenomenon. Christians of all persuasions have sincerely spoken or sung these words for centuries. Which raises a few questions.
If God is present everywhere, isn’t the Spirit already here?
Should we even be praying to the Holy Spirit?
And what exactly are we asking the Spirit to come and do?
We’re going to seek to answer those questions, specifically as it relates to the gatherings of the church. How are we to think about the Holy Spirit’s presence and our engagement with him?
Everywhere and Yet Present
In one sense, we can’t get away from the Spirit. King David asked, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). Scripture also tells us the Spirit is present when we gather, dwelling both within individuals and in his church (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; 6:19). The Holy Spirit is always with us.
In another sense, however, the Spirit makes his presence known in unique ways and specific times. He “localizes” his presence. One of those times is when the church meets. When we meet, Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). The Spirit manifests himself, or “comes,” in various ways and in differing degrees, depending on his intentions.
“The Spirit makes his presence known in unique ways and specific times. He ‘localizes’ his presence.”
That leads us to our second question: Is it proper to pray to the Spirit? Prayers in the New Testament are almost always to the Father, sometimes to the Son. But we don’t find any examples of praying to the Spirit directly. Does that make praying to the Spirit wrong?
No. The Holy Spirit, as the third person of the triune God, can be worshiped, obeyed, and yes, prayed to. Praying to the Spirit is neither forbidden nor mandated in Scripture, and can remind us that the Spirit is indeed God. The most important thing is to recognize our need for his divine work each time we gather.
Seven Ways the Spirit Comes
Whatever language we choose to invoke the Spirit’s activity, there is often a vagueness in our requests for the Spirit’s work that can be misleading, unhelpful, and at times dangerous. So what can we consistently ask and expect the Holy Spirit to do when we gather?
1. The Spirit comes to enable us to worship God.
We are those who worship by the Spirit of God and can acknowledge the lordship of Jesus only because of his work (Philippians 3:3; 1 Corinthians 12:3). Apart from the Spirit, we wouldn’t see or want to respond to God’s glory. John Webster reminds us,
We need to ask God to help us praise him. Praise isn’t natural — we can’t just turn on the tap and let it flow. In the end, praise is something that God works in us. There’s no question here of skill, of capacities that we can work on and hone to perfection. Praise is the Spirit’s gift. (Christ Our Salvation, 101)
While Jesus makes our offerings of worship acceptable to God (1 Peter 2:5), the Spirit actually turns our hearts to treasure Christ over the poisonous idols that tempt us from without and within.
2. The Spirit comes to assure us.
While knowing and believing the truth of the gospel is a matter of eternal significance, God wants to give us more than head knowledge. We ask the Spirit to come so that we might feel the Father’s adopting love. It’s normal to value doctrine, theology, study, and orthodoxy and still be discouraged by our ongoing struggle with sin. We can start to think God has grown tired of us, is disgusted with us, or has simply forgotten us. Scripture reminds us that, “because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). We are personally, passionately, and particularly loved by our heavenly Father — and the Spirit assures us of that reality.
3. The Spirit comes to unify us.
God doesn’t command us to create unity with other believers. Instead, we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3). While Christ made our unity possible through his substitutionary sacrifice, Paul calls what we enjoy together the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Can our unity be strengthened and deepened? Absolutely. But we are helpless to produce it. It is the Spirit who enables us to forgive others, to find evidences of God’s working in those around us, and to love others with a love that transcends our petty squabbles and cold hearts.
4. The Spirit comes to transform us.
God never intends for us to leave our Sunday gatherings unchanged and unaffected. Just as God saves us to make us like his Son (Romans 8:29), he calls us together for the same purpose. And how do we change? Not by hearing another list of things we aren’t doing, resolving to do better next time, or groveling in our sinfulness. The Spirit changes us as we behold the glory of Christ in the gospel and his word (2 Corinthians 3:18). He is the Holy Spirit, who works to free us from all the defiling effects of sin.
5. The Spirit comes to empower us.
What makes for a powerful Sunday meeting at your church? Certainly faithful preaching and skilled musical leadership are factors, but those aren’t the only ways God wants to display his power when we gather. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). Not to some, but to each. Every one of us is a potential means through which God wants to manifest the Spirit by displaying his power, kindness, and truth to others. As we eagerly desire spiritual gifts of all varieties (1 Corinthians 14:1), we are asking the Spirit to come and do what we could never do on our own. How different our churches might look if every member asked the Spirit to come and empower him or her to serve others for the glory of Christ!
6. The Spirit comes to enlighten us.
More times than I can count, I’ve sat under the faithful preaching of God’s word and seen something I never saw before. That’s the Spirit’s work. Apart from the Spirit in us, we’d be unable to comprehend or benefit from the Bible. Paul tells the Corinthian church that “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12). No amount of human wisdom, study, experience, or effort can replace the need for God’s Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts to receive God’s truth and behold the beauty of Christ.
7. The Spirit comes to reveal God’s presence.
The modern emphasis among some churches on pursuing the presence of God has caused other churches to belittle or ignore the pursuit altogether. But the Spirit’s presence is more than mere doctrine. It is an unspeakable gift to be felt and cherished. He is the guarantee of our inheritance, a foretaste of that day when the dwelling place of God will be with man and we will see him face to face (Revelation 21:3; 22:4). For our good and for God’s glory, the Spirit at times will make us aware that God is with us — inexplicably, wondrously, mercifully. And he doesn’t restrict himself to events that are either planned or spontaneous. He works through both to bring conviction, peace, joy, and awe. So why wouldn’t we want to experience his presence more often?
Holy Spirit, Come
Graham Harrison, a UK pastor who is now with the Lord, once said,
There can be no substitute for that manifested presence of God which is always a biblical possibility for the people of God. When it is not being experienced, they should humbly seek him for it, not neglecting their ongoing duties, nor denying their present blessings, but recognizing that there is always infinitely more with their God and Father who desires fellowship with those redeemed by the blood of his Son and regenerated by the work of his Spirit.
“God never intends for us to leave our Sunday gatherings unchanged and unaffected.”
Without neglecting what God has called us to do, nor denying his promise to be with us at all times, we can long and pray for a greater manifestation of the Spirit’s work in our midst. We can ask the Holy Spirit to come and do what only he can do.
And to what end? Certainly for our edification and joy. But ultimately that Jesus might receive more of the glory he alone deserves: “[The Holy Spirit] will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14). Therefore, Webster says, “The basic movement of our life together, the basic movement of assembly for worship, has to be prayer for the coming of the Spirit to make us new. That, Sunday by Sunday, is the chief business of our lives” (Christ Our Salvation, 96).
And so we pray, again and again, “Holy Spirit, come.”
By Gerrit Scott Dawson — 6 months ago
When it works as it should, marriage is a tragedy.
I have seen the quiet courage it takes for a widow to walk to her pew as the funeral begins. Once she entered the sanctuary as the radiant bride, and all eyes were upon her in her glory. Now she enters as the bereaved, and all eyes are upon her again, watching to see how she will hold up. I have seen the children of the widower worry as their dad made his precarious way to his funeral seat. Once he was the beaming groom watching for the first sight of his bride. So proud, so strong, his life before him. Now he shuffles. But he has resolutely rejected that blasted walker. He’ll go unaided, once more, for her.
What a grievous plight! A couple cleaves together for fifty or sixty years. They learn to know each better than anyone else. They communicate often without words but still with clear understanding. For some twenty thousand days and nights, they have given themselves to each other, died for each other, and lived for all the life that came from their love. Then, just as nerve fails and frailty rises, one of them dies. One is left to carry on alone, just when the deceased is most needed. One endures, heartbroken but resolute to live from love and vows pledged so long ago.
As Aragorn tells Arwen in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “There is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.”
Aragorn and Arwen
I don’t remember reading the appendix of The Lord of the Rings before I was married. The saga of destroying the Ring and setting right Middle-earth had been enough for me. But early in our years together, Rhonda and I read the trilogy aloud. We didn’t want it to end. So I paged through the extras and stumbled on the history of the relationship between Arwen, the undying elf princess, and Aragorn, the rugged Ranger who was heir to the throne of Gondor.
Tolkien pierced me with beauty and sorrow in places of my heart I didn’t even know I had. I still can’t read those few pages without, at some point, popping tears. But neither can I stop returning to this story so filled with not only the sorrow, but also the choice and the hope of every enduring love. Following it will lead us to a set of the most beautiful and true sentences ever written.
As a young man of 20, Aragorn walks one evening in the woods of Rivendell, one of the fair realms of the elves. He sings as he wanders, taking up the ancient lay of Beren and Luthien, a man who dared to love an elven princess and she who gave up immortality to marry him. Just then, he sees Arwen walking among the birch trees. Smitten by her graceful loveliness, Aragorn feels he is living inside the song. For Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, the elf lord who rules that land. With confidence beyond any renown he has yet earned, Aragorn approaches Arwen. His heart is hers.
But the future appointed for them seems a block to any relationship. Though young in appearance, Arwen has already lived the years of many human lifetimes. Her destiny is to sail at the end of the age with her father and kin to the undying lands of the West. Aragorn has yet to win his way through the battles with the Shadow and undertake the near-hopeless quest to see the Ring of Power destroyed. Elrond will permit no talk of union with his daughter until Aragorn has proved himself faithful and victorious.
Decades pass. Then it happens that in Lothlorien, another edenic woodland of the elves, Aragorn comes again upon Arwen under the trees. This time, she loses her heart to him, seeing him grown into the fullness of manhood. For some days, they walk and talk together blissfully. Yet both know that the Shadow of Sauron deepens. His malevolence threatens the world. Great struggle lies ahead. Victory seems unlikely. Choices must be made. Will Aragorn forsake the war, withdrawing with his beloved as long he can? Will Arwen choose to depart for the West, mysteriously referred to as the Twilight, safe from war but never able to return to Middle-earth except in memory?
In the moment of choosing one another, they also pledge their lives to the desperate struggle for the renewal of the world. “And the Shadow I utterly reject,” says Aragorn. Arwen replies, “And I will cleave to you . . . and turn from the Twilight [though] there lies . . . the long home of all my kin.” Their lives together will be in the mortal realm, where evil must be fought and a kingdom built through faithful service.
The more Rhonda and I have personally pressed into the depths of living from Christ and for Christ, the more we have realized our call to fight the evil one through our love. Trust in Jesus’s promised future fuels us to live in hope, even as the days seem to grow darker. We realize our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world. Fidelity, forgiveness, hearing one another, giving grace — these are militant choices for love.
“Our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world.”
In cleaving together as Christians, we renounce the Shadow — understood as living for ourselves, merely to consume what we can of the good life. We also decline the Twilight — understood as withdrawing from the struggle and snatching as much peace alone together as we can afford. Of course, challenges to this vision enter every life stage. The time of our parting will, no doubt, nudge our faith toward despair. But courage can be found in the rest of Aragorn and Arwen’s story.
Against all odds, Aragorn wins through. On midsummer’s day after the Ring is destroyed, Aragorn and Arwen marry. They have more than a century together while the kingdom flourishes. But at last, the time comes for parting. Though long lived, Aragorn still has to face the doom of men. On his deathbed, he says to his beloved the words already quoted: “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.” Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.
It seems a rotten system. This sorrow can tempt us to give up. To curse God. To be cynics. To declare love only an exercise in futility. The pain in parting becomes the fiercest challenger. So Aragorn continues, “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring.” All love in this world still languishes under the “futility” of our mortality and our ever-more-apparent “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20–21). The choice for hope takes continuing effort. The vocation of committed love to bless the world demands renewed engagement of the last enemy’s challenge, especially when strength fades. Right in the teeth of the pain ahead, we look death and evil and sorrow straight in the face and nevertheless renounce selfishness and sin. We reject withdrawal into the shadows, and choose to love to the very end.
“Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.”
So we come to Aragorn’s beautiful sentences: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory! Farewell!”
Within the world we experience, nothing now can remove the pain when two so interconnected must part. But that is not the final word! Reality is not limited to this world of time and space. We go to something more. Something more than oblivion, that awful emptiness of the atheistic future. Something more than a shadowy existence, that underworld the ancients perceived as the realm of the dead. Something more than merely living on in another’s memory, or as an impersonal part of the vast universe. Rather, something more real, more us, than ever before. Something founded on the rising of Jesus, who burst through these mortal constraints into an embodied and relational eternity.
Beyond the Circles of the World
Tolkien detested allegory and eschewed any one-to-one correspondence between the characters in his fiction and the people we meet in Scripture. Yet his faith undergirded all he wrote. Tolkien explored these underpinnings in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He wrote that great stories fully acknowledge the sorrow and the failure in the world, and even the fear that these will be all that’s left. Yet the Christian story “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
For Tolkien, this hope flows from the veracity of Jesus’s resurrection. Christ has conquered death and so altered the future of the world. “The story begins and ends in joy. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” This great turn toward joy against impossible odds is the enduring beauty in The Lord of the Rings, and on his deathbed, Aragorn became the spokesman for the faith that joy wins out. We cling to this.
How much did Tolkien believe his character? How deep did his faith run that in the world he created he was rendering truths from Christ’s redemptive reality? Ronald and Edith Tolkien share a headstone in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. I think it’s quite telling that under her name is etched “Luthien.” Married 55 years, she was his elf princess, his Arwen and true love. Under his name, “Beren” is carved, for he won her heart and proved his troth through the decades. Now they know that we are not bound forever to the circles of this world. Beyond them is more — oh, so very much more.