The Three Ws of Assurance

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There are three main grounds of assurance of salvation, each beginning with W.

The Word of the Father

The Work of Christ

The Witness of the Spirit

The first two Ws are quite straightforward:

The Word of the Father promises salvation to those who believe in the Son. We can rest on those biblical promises because God does not lie. His word is reliable. John 3:16 is one example of a promise that ought to give believers great assurance of salvation.

The Work of Christ on the cross provides salvation. Isaiah 53:5-6 is one among many passages about the cross teaching believers that “the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” There is nothing left to pay. It is rather insulting to the cross when downhearted believers wonder whether they are too guilty to be saved.

The third W needs more explanation:

The Witness of the Spirit is our experience of the reality of the indwelling Spirit, who preserves salvation. The logic flows like this: If you experience the Spirit’s power in your life, helping you to resist sin and live for God, you can be confident that you have the Spirit (Romans 8:6-9). Knowing that you have the Spirit reassures you that you will be saved because he is given to preserve our faith until the end: “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession — to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14).

Another way to think about the witness of the Spirit is to examine your opinion of Jesus. If you see in Jesus the glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:4-6), and if the sight of that glory has stirred up some measure of Christlikeness in your life (2 Corinthians 3:18), then the Spirit testifies that you have eternal life, because it’s only by the Spirit that people truly believe in Jesus as God’s Son (see 1 John 5:6-11). That is what J.I. Packer has in mind when he says that the internal witness of the Spirit is:

a work of enlightenment whereby, through the medium of verbal testimony … blind eyes … are opened, and divine realities come to be recognized and embraced for what they are. This recognition … is as immediate and unanalysable as the perceiving of a colour, or a taste, by physical sense – an event about which no more can be said than that when appropriate stimuli were present it happened, and when it happened we knew it had happened.

(Emphasis added. From “Calvin the Theologian” via http://www.desiringgod.org/biographies/the-divine-majesty-of-the-word)

Meditating on the three Ws is a lifetime’s task but the more we engage in that task the more assurance of salvation we will enjoy.

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Improving Our Bible Studies

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What is a Bible study?

The term “Bible study” could refer to lots of different activities. But it’s commonly used to describe a fairly small group of people (a dozen or fewer) getting together to study a particular passage of the Bible, under the oversight of a study leader using a question-and-answer method. That’s what “Bible study” means throughout this post.

Why do a Bible study instead of listening to someone give a talk?

It’s easy to defend preaching as a method of Bible instruction, because it’s so often exemplified in the Bible itself. It’s harder, however, to find biblical examples of Bible studies. But some of Jesus’ question-and-answer sessions in the temple precincts look rather like Bible studies. And of course we don’t need to see something being modeled in the Bible for it to be a legitimate thing for believers to do (think of all the perfectly acceptable jobs that aren’t actually exemplified in the Scriptures). While Sunday sermons should be a church’s primary means of delivering Bible teaching, a Bible study is a good additional method. Its special value is that it gives people the experience of discovering truths from the Bible themselves, rather than being told those truths by someone else. You could say that a sermon gives everyone a pot of honey to eat from, while a Bible study encourages people to go to the beehive and gather honey for themselves. Or to use another picture, a sermon shines a flashlight into people’s minds, while in a Bible study the aim is for lightbulbs to turn on in those minds by themselves.

I’ve been invited to lead a Bible study. How should I prepare?

As said above, Bible study leaders use a question-and-answer method. For this to be done well, the study leader needs first, a deep understanding of the passage (see steps 1 – 4 below); and, second, carefully-composed questions that are “simple yet succulent”: simple enough to be understood right away but succulent enough to attract an answer, because no one enjoys answering overly-basic questions (see step 5).

[Step 1: Pray] The first thing to do is to pray for God’s help, because without it people’s minds will remain closed to the Bible’s meaning: “Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45).

[Step 2: Look Closely] Next we’ll need to spend a significant amount of time looking closely at the passage, thinking it over and consulting resources such as the ESV Study Bible and a commentary (try this site for recommended commentaries on Bible books). Paul says to Timothy: “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this” (2 Timothy 2:7). We can’t expect the latter unless we do the former. Begin by seeking the original meaning, i.e. the intended meaning for the original readers/hearers. Later we’ll get on to applying the passage to our own time and place, but to do that faithfully we first need a clear understanding of the originally intended meaning – we need to “go back to Corinth.” Five key words to aid this process are Context, Repetition, Aim, Mood, and Structure (the first letters of each word form the memory-aid CRAMS, which is fitting because God crams Bible passages full of meaning). Ask yourself: what is the context, the surrounding material for this passage? For example, Isaiah 53:3 refers back to 49:6-7, which refers back to 9:1-2. Those connections are meaningful because they establish that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is the same person as the world-ruling Messiah of Isaiah 9. Ultimately the context of any one passage is the whole of the rest of the Bible. Hebrews 11:17-19, for example, helps us understand Genesis 22:10. So Bible study leaders should be striving to grow in their understanding of all the Scriptures. The better we understand the Bible as a whole, the better we’ll understand individual passages within it. Ask yourself: is there any repetition in the passage? People generally repeat themselves when they’re trying to communicate something important (“Just don’t forget to feed the cat”; “You must have told me that seven times by now”). Ephesians 2:1-10 is an example of a passage with some significant repetition. Ask yourself: does the author of the passage state anywhere what the aim is, i.e. the purpose of the passage or the purpose of the book in which the passage is found? If so, that will be very relevant! John 20:30-31 is a famous example, which helps us understand the whole of John’s gospel. Another example is Jude 3. Psalm 73:1 sets out the teaching point that the whole of the rest of the psalm explores. Ask yourself: what is the mood of this passage? If a passage has a cheerful mood then you should expect a joyful, encouraging meaning. A passage with a sad, melancholy mood will probably have a meaning that challenges our sinfulness or tells us something about the fallenness of our world. An example of the latter is Luke 17:11-19, which describes a miraculous healing and yet closes on a melancholy note – which would need to be acknowledged in the study. In contrast Matthew 13:44-45 is a joyful passage, and so it wouldn’t be right to focus on the negative side of “selling all you have.” Ask yourself: does the structure of the passage help to reveal its meaning? Just as we separate knives, forks and spoons in a kitchen drawer to avoid confusion, so authors separate the different points they’re trying to make. In Psalm 19, for example, the author makes one point in the first six verses, another point in verses 7-11, and a third point in verses 12-14. Noticing the structure helps us to follow the author’s logic.

[Step 3: Bridge the Gap] Once we’ve understood – with God’s help – the original meaning, we’re in a position to work out the meaning for today – but watch out! There’s a gap between the first readers and ourselves today, which needs to be bridged with great care. To bridge the gap properly involves a good grasp of the successive periods of salvation history, and the differences between them. God’s requirements for his people change from one period to the next: under the new covenant, for example, we’re permitted to eat bacon, whereas doing so in earlier periods of salvation history would have disqualified someone from membership of God’s people. Even when reading the New Testament we need to be sensitive to some cultural differences that might alter the implications for our own day. For instance, should Paul’s command to “greet one another with a holy kiss” be taken literally in hand-shaking or head-bowing cultures? Probably not.

[Step 4: Apply in a Gospel-Friendly Way] If a Bible study doesn’t consider the potential impact of the passage on our lives, it’s just a purposeless exercise in intellectual stimulation. God wants our lives to be transformed (Romans 12:2).  But there is a danger we need to watch out for when it comes to application. People can often fall into a “works righteousness” approach to their relationship with God, i.e. we get it into our heads that doing good works is the way to gain acceptance with God.  We must never forget that we’re saved by grace, through the righteousness God gives us when we trust in the atoning blood shed by Jesus on the cross. So we must apply the Bible to our lives in a gospel-friendly way that doesn’t undermine the good news of God’s free gift of righteousness. As we learn to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:20), we do so to bring him glory, not to earn enough merit to be saved. A final point to keep in mind is that sometimes a passage will transform us not by giving us a command to obey but by revealing a truth about God that fills us with fresh praise and adoration.

[Step 5: Compose "Simple yet Succulent" Questions] There are two types of question: observation questions and significance questions. Observation questions have answers that are gettable-from-the-text. They could be described as “eyes down” questions. For example, an observation question in a study on Mark 9:1-14 (the transfiguration) would be: “What three extraordinary things happen in this passage?” A question like that forces the eyes down towards the page. Significance questions deal with issues raised by the text, and could be termed “eyes up” questions. One useful exercise, when writing study questions, is to put (O) or (S) after each question. A good rule of thumb is that there should be more (O) questions than (S) questions overall, because there’s always a lot of information to take in from the passage. Remember that the objective is for people to gather honey from the hive themselves, rather than receiving a pot of honey from the study leader. That process depends on (O) questions. We want to give people enough work to do themselves that they experience the joy of gaining understanding through their own God-facilitated reflection on the text. So, to use a different image, our questions should be like sheepdogs herding sheep into a pen. Sheepdogs prevent sheep from wandering off-track. Yet they don’t pick the sheep up and throw them into the pen, they try to get the sheep to do the work of getting into the pen by themselves. In a similar way our questions should be purposeful so that people don’t wander away from the main points of the text, and yet the questions shouldn’t make it so obvious what the desired answer is that people don’t need to think for themselves. For further advice on composing succulent questions, i.e. questions that are juicy enough to make everyone want to answer them, see the next section. 

Whenever I ask a question, tumbleweed drifts across the room. What’s gone wrong?

This may be because your questions aren’t simple enough, or they’re simple but not succulent. Think yourself into the shoes of the people in your study. Imagine what it feels like to be asked the questions you’re asking. A long and complicated question such as, “In verse 3 how does Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees contrast with what we saw earlier when Jesus was on the other side of the Sea of Galilee after he healed the man with leprosy?” will leave people bamboozled and unable to answer. And yet an overly-basic question such as, “What does Jesus say in verse 3?” will also lead to nothing but crickets in the background. People will be thinking, “Please. The last time I was asked a question like that was in third grade.” One way to ask an observation question which has some succulence is to say, “How would you put what Jesus says in verse 3 in your own words?” That will bring about the desired observation while making the question more attractive to answer. People often respond well to an invitation to be creative, such as, “If you were present at this scene with a smartphone, what three Instagram pictures would you take to capture what happens?” Or (to aid observation of the mood of a passage), “What kind of background music would you choose for the events in verses 1-5?” Sometimes attaching a significance question to an observation question can make it more succulent: “What’s the most important word in verse 8, and why?” The Bible contains many surprises, and a question such as, “What’s the surprise in verses 3-4?” will often work well. It’s also worth keeping in mind that sometimes things will move along better if you give information to the group yourself. We shouldn’t feel that everything needs to be communicated via questions and answers. One final way to get rid of tumbleweed moments is to prepare “supplementaries” in advance, that is, an alternative question in case the initial question doesn’t get a response. If you have supplementary questions up your sleeve the awkward silences won’t last for long.

Is it OK to tell someone they’re mistaken?

A post on the Gospel Coalition website answered that question wisely:

I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, “Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers.” Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn’t know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage. (Keri Folmar)

If everything that everyone says in your Bible study group is greeted with a thoughtful nod and polite approval, your study times are dangerous. Because in that kind of group false teachers such as those described in 2 Peter 3:16 could introduce their errors and lead people astray. All Bible interpretations are not equally valid and acceptable, and it’s the task of the study leader to make that clear to the group. Sometimes a friendly yet firm correction – together with a clear explanation – is in order.

We get sidetracked a lot, and we rarely have time for application. Any suggestions?

The Bible is meant to be transformative. In our studies we must reach the point of discussing what impact a Bible passage should have on our lives, while keeping everything to a reasonable time. We simply don’t have the luxury of going off down every intriguing byway and so we’ll need to steer people politely back to the main pathway of the study.

I’m a study leader who’s super busy and I just don’t have time for all of this preparation. Can’t I roll up on the day and trust God to make good things happen?

It’s fair to say that small group Bible studies are often badly led, even when the leader is thoroughly sound theologically and gifted as a Bible teacher. This is probably because it’s easy to avoid a shockingly bad experience, since everyone usually comes to a Bible study with a positive attitude and they will chip in with helpful contributions. We feel confident that we won’t have an embarrassing failure, and so we don’t safeguard the time necessary for proper preparation. Yet with Bible studies as with so much else in life, if we fail to prepare we prepare to fail. A study might not feel like a disaster and yet nonetheless fall far short of the burning-heart producing, eye-opening, joy-kindling experience that it could otherwise have been. Bible studies like that will generally only happen when the leader is “prayed up and prepped up.” Jesus says, “On the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word” (Matthew 12:36), and so how much more will we give account for those potentially life-changing times when we led a group of his beloved people in a Bible study? A good target to aim for is at least two clear hours of prayerful preparation for each study. Why not spend one hour reflecting on the passage, consulting a commentary and scribbling down some rough questions. Come back later (maybe on a different day) and spend a second hour polishing those questions. Time spent prayerfully preparing questions is time very well spent. 

Image credit: http://www.bethleheminbaltimore.com

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Who Am I?

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“There is, therefore, a great need for discernment in our self-understanding. Who am I? What is my ‘self’? The answer is that I am a Jekyll and Hyde … having both dignity, because I was created and have been re-created in the image of God, and depravity, because I still have a fallen and rebellious nature. I am both noble and ignoble, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, upright and twisted, image and child of God, and yet sometimes yielding obsequious homage to the devil from whose clutches Christ has rescued me. My true self is what I am by creation, which Christ came to redeem, and by calling. My false self is what I am by the Fall, which Christ came to destroy.

“Only when we have discerned which is which within us, shall we know what attitude to adopt towards each. We must be true to our true self and false to our false self. We must be fearless in affirming all that we are by creation, redemption and calling, and ruthless in disowning all that we are by the Fall …

“Standing before the cross we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of his love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing him to die.”

John Stott, The Cross Of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 1989), p. 285.

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What were Jesus’ last words?

We all know the faith-filled last words that Jesus spoke on the cross: “Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). But what were the last words Jesus spoke while physically present in this world, after his resurrection but before his ascension? This is more than just a point of Bible trivia, because it packs a big punch to be able say, “Jesus last words while here in this world were…”

This will take us a while. At the end of Luke’s Gospel we read, “Then Jesus led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). So Jesus’ final words were a blessing of some kind. Keep that in mind.

Now consider what we’re told in Acts 1:7-9: “He said to them: ‘…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Are those words Jesus’ last words? The ascension took place after Jesus said them, but not necessarily immediately afterwards. In Luke 24:51 we’re told Jesus blesses the disciples while in the very act of ascending, and it would be difficult to characterize the words in Acts 1:8 as a blessing. So the search goes on.

At first sight the words of the Great Commission, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, seem to be out of contention because Matthew 28:16 speaks of a mountain in Galilee, rather than the Mount of Olives (pictured above), which was the site of the ascension according to Acts 1:12. But a closer look at the text shows that Matthew 28:18-20 doesn’t necessarily describe the same resurrection appearance as 28:16-17. Verse 18 begins, “And Jesus came and said to them…”, which could easily be the introduction to a new appearance. (Imagine a gap above verse 18 separating 18-20 from 16-17, and imagine the translators’ heading “The Great Commission” sitting above 18-20 instead of 16-20. You wouldn’t necessarily assume we were still in the same geographical location in 18-20 as 16-17, would you?) With Matthew 28:18-20 now back in the running, it’s possible to make a strong case for those verses being Jesus’ final words. They finish with a blessing (“I am with you always, to the end of the age”), as required by Luke 24:51; and the command to go makes them more “last wordsy” than the factual information given in Acts 1:8.

So here they are: Jesus’ last words while physically present in our world. Are you playing your part in this glorious global project?

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

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Awaiting Further Light

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“If we find difficulties in the Bible that we cannot explain, a degree of modesty on our part would lead us to say, ‘If I knew a little more, I might be able to explain this difficulty,’ rather than, ‘This book that contains a difficulty which I cannot explain surely cannot be from God.’”

R. A. Torrey, Talks to Men (1904; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1955), p. 108.

Sometimes when we encounter things we find problematic in the Bible, such as apparent contradictions, or commands that are hard for us to swallow, we may need to file it in what my friend Greg Bannister calls our ‘Awaiting Further Light folder.’ Doing that requires humility (as R. A. Torrey points out in the quote above), patience and trust. And to do that with integrity will mean prayerfully and expectantly revisiting the AFL folder at a later date, rather than permanently shelving it.

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Christianity and Political Change

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I recently came across this quotation from George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796), which seems very relevant to the political situation on both sides of the Atlantic:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Washington argues that ‘religious principle’ is essential for ‘national morality.’ In other words, a nation cannot reliably know the difference between right and wrong without religion. It’s possible that he had the recent French Revolution in mind, which rejected France’s Christian heritage, and quickly gave way to the horrific mass executions of the Reign of Terror. Washington has since been proved right, time and again, on every continent. The words of Harry Wu, imprisoned for nineteen years in China’s system of labor camps, have stuck in my mind ever since I read them. One day during his imprisonment he realized, ‘Human life has no value here. It has no more importance than cigarette ash flicked in the wind.’ God’s laws are designed for our protection and our good; when nations reject them, anything goes.

But of course there are many in the West today who say that lawmaking should be carried out without any reference to Christianity. One example is the British judge Lord Justice Laws, who made the following argument when rejecting Gary McFarlane’s appeal against his dismissal as a relationship counselor (he had refused to advise gay couples on their sex life):

The conferment of any legal protection or preference … on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence.

This kind of thinking forgets the truth that Washington grasped: ultimately, morality depends upon religion. Lord Justice Laws talks of ‘objective grounds,’ and (elsewhere in his ruling) ‘reason,’ as if human beings are perfectly capable of determining what is best when left to themselves. Yet in reality people can justify anything on the basis of ‘objective grounds’ and ‘reason’ – the atheistic regimes of the 20th century did, as they sent millions to their deaths. Those who look for justice to spring from mankind ignore history, which demonstrates so clearly the truth of Jeremiah 17:9: ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.’ Mankind can only be kept in check by reverence for God’s commands. ‘Where there is no revelation people cast off restraint’ (Prov. 29:18). Human laws are best when they reflect God’s ‘perfect law’ (James 1:25), which Paul insists is not designed simply for the Christian community but for everyone (1 Tim. 1:9).

Many Christians are calling for the Church to stop fighting so-called culture wars and simply spread the gospel. It’s true that by far the best kind of social change comes when the gospel has been widely received. But that insight shouldn’t stop us from speaking out on moral and legal issues. Paul urges us to do good to everyone (Galatians 6:10) and improving a nation’s laws certainly has that effect. Here are some specific things that Christians can do: 1) Let’s work on our arguments. Putting them in the form of a question makes it easier for people to adjust without losing face: e.g. ‘How would you feel about your daughter being taught at school that she can marry either a boy or a girl when she grows up?’ People can be persuaded. 2) Support a Christian organization that lobbies politicians – in the UK the Christian Institute is superb. 3) Pray regularly for those in authority, and make sure that your church does too (1 Tim. 2:1-4). 4) Pray for Christians in politics whom you know personally and send them an encouraging note once in a while. 5) Write letters to those in authority, and (in the UK) consider visiting your MP. Imagine being a politician and only ever receiving letters and visits from those on the unbiblical side of the issues.

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On Idleness

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“Our thoughts are so active and restless that they will be doing something or other, and like unruly soldiers, if others do not employ them well, they will employ themselves ill. God has therefore in mercy appointed us callings to take up our thoughts, that they may be not only innocent but profitable to ourselves and others. Paradise had employment, and Heaven also will not be without it. Idleness is an hour of temptation; and we can have no excuse to stand idle in the market place when God himself offers to employ us… the best way to free our hearts from evil thoughts is by good employment.”

Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues (1669; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 234-235.

Hat tip: Kairos Journal (http://www.kairosjournal.org.uk/about/)

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