The Breath of God

Hymn #334 is our hymn of application this Sunday, and it is a prayer to the Holy Spirit for His influence in our lives. The word “Spirit” in Hebrew and Greek is the same word as “breath” or “wind”, leading to the hymn writer using this figure. The Scripture text in the Trinity is John 20:22, where Jesus breathes on the disciples, symbolizing the gift of the Spirit.

Frequently in the Old Testament, the promise is made that one day the Spirit of God would be poured out on God’s people and that the result would be that their sinful natures would be changed and they would truly come to love the law of God. This comes as a result of the one inviolable sacrifice of Christ that forever guarantees fellowship between God and His people, and guarantees the presence of the Spirit in our lives.

The hymn says, in line two of verse one, “…that I may love what thou dost love, and do what thou wouldst do.” This is what sanctification is all about. It is not becoming so strong and stoic that we can deny ourselves what we love and can force ourselves to do unpleasant things because they will please God. Some of that is necessary along the way; we must learn self-denial and sacrifice for God’s service. But what we learn in the process is that when we deny ourselves our sinful lusts, we are actually denying ourselves deadly poison in favor of life-giving food. Real sanctification comes when we come to realize this, when our desires change, and we follow God’s law not out of external commandment and fear of punishment, but out of a recognition that God’s service and God’s law are extremely good and pleasant ways to live.

This means that our sanctification is just as much an act of God’s grace as our justification. Paul says in Galatians 3, “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh?” They were trying to improve on the grace of Christ by adding to it the works of the law. But Paul shows them that the whole point of the Old Testament ceremonies was to show them their inability to overcome their own sinful natures on their own and point them to the grace of God.

As believers in Christ, we are just as dependent for our ongoing sanctification as we are for our initial faith. He that began a good work in us will finish it to the day of salvation, and the way that He does that is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The believer ought therefore to be faithful in prayer asking for the work of the Spirit, laying hold of the means of grace through which the Spirit has promised to work, and then patiently waiting on the Spirit to do His work.

I Love Thy Kingdom Lord

Hymn #353 in the Trinity Hymnal is our hymn of the month for June. As we focus on the Lord’s Supper this month, we have selected a hymn that expresses our joy and gratitude at being part of the kingdom of God.

The Psalms often praise God for Israel or for Zion or Jerusalem. Sometimes this is phrased as praising Jerusalem itself; Psalm 50 for example calls Zion the “perfection of beauty” and Psalm 48 says that Zion is the “joy of the whole earth.” In one sense this might be disturbing, since on the surface it might appear that the Psalm is praising men, or the work of men. But Jerusalem was what it was because of the work of God. The Psalmist is not praising the earthly city of itself, or praising the men who built or ruled Jerusalem. Rather, the Psalmist is praising the work of God.

Likewise, a hymn such as #353 or others that praise the church of God must be understood as praising God for His work in the church. We should not sing the praises of some particular denomination or local congregation, though even there we are thankful for God’s blessings to us. But we do praise the work of God. It is therefore the holy, catholic and apostolic church, the temple of God built with living stones, existing in many different denominations and local congregations which we praise. That is the true house of God. We are blessed and thankful to be part of the visible manifestation of the church. But we know that the church in its current form is full of imperfections and beset with sin, and it is that church in its spiritual character and in its eternal perfection for which we long.

As the first verse says, Jesus paid for this church with His own blood. It is a very precious thing, and it is a necessary part of the character of a Christian that he love the bride of Christ. Though we distinguish between the visible and invisible church, it is no good saying that I love the true and invisible church but disregard the visible church, for the only place I will find the invisible church is within the visible church. God’s people will join themselves to God’s church, to the bride of Christ, to put themselves under the rule of the church and the teaching of the Word, and they will not neglect the gathering of the saints.

Therefore, if I claim to love the bride of Christ, the church of God, I will find a local congregation to be part of, so that even through its imperfections and failings I will find God’s beloved people and experience the blessed communion of the saints. The miner knows he has to dig through a lot of worthless rock and dirt to find the gold and gems. In our Christian life, we too must be patient with hypocrisy, disappointment and weakness to find the precious communion of the saints. Hymn #353 well expresses the thankfulness the Christian has to be associated with God’s people, and his earnest desire to work, to pray, to suffer for the good and prosperity of Christ’s church.

Approaching God by Faith

Catechism question #60 has always been one of the most beloved questions in the catechism.

“Question 60. How are thou righteous before God?

Answer: Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.”

In this one question the doctrine of justification is clearly and fully spelled out. The reality of sin is acknowledged, that we have absolutely no righteousness of our own that can ever stand before God. Even after, by God’s grace, we repent of sin and begin to put off the body of the flesh, we have nothing that can truly stand up to the requirements of God’s law. Our very best works in this life are tainted by the presence of sinful motivations, of pride, of the desire for recognition, of self-righteousness.

But despite this truth, we can nonetheless stand fully confident before God in the righteousness of Christ. Our standing before God is and must always be on the basis of this alien righteousness. If we ever attempt to stand before God on the basis of our own goodness, then we become “debtors to do the whole law.” It’s all or nothing; Christ’s perfect righteousness or ours.

When we stand by faith in Christ’s righteousness, we can lay hold of this wonderful truth, that God regards us as perfectly sinless, as if we had accomplished all the obedience that Christ had accomplished, and were possessed of the perfect innocence which He Himself possesses. God still knows that we are sinners, for He chastens and disciplines us away from that sin. But in a legal sense, there is “no condemnation” (Romans 8:1) for those who put their trust in Christ. There is truly no wrath, no judgment against the believer in Christ at all, for he is viewed as perfectly righteous. The sacrifice of Christ forever covers his sin, past, present and future.

When we come to worship God, we know we will fail in many ways. We may come distracted by the cares of the world, or be lifted up in pride, thinking ourselves more worthy of God’s blessings because we worship. We may think that since we came to church on Sunday God now owes us some blessing. We may come to church to be seen of others, so that other people would think of us as good people.

Yet even with all these and other failings, we can have confidence and joy that God will receive our worship, not because it is perfect worship, but because we stand in the merits of Christ. God receives us and is pleased in our worship, when that worship is offered in the name of His beloved Son, in faith. We can be sure that we have the heart of the Father when we lay before Him the name of His Son, Jesus Christ.

Paying our Vows

In the Old Testament law, people could offer gifts to God as part of vows that they made. These were usually promises made to God as acts of thanksgiving for some blessing God had given. There were restrictions on what could be offered as such an offering: nothing torn, broken, maimed or sick. They were taught to offer God only their best, as should we.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon says, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed– Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.” (Ecc 5:4-5 NKJ) In general, this shows us that God takes promises very seriously, and expects us to keep the commitments we make, even commitments that He has not required us to make.

Witnessing a membership vow is a wonderful reminder of the commitments we make to God in the church. The church is a voluntary organization; we are not compelled to be members. Believers in Christ choose by faith to join themselves to His body, the church, to live under its authority and to use their gifts to the good of the church. The practice reflects the fact that public identification with the church is necessary. It is necessary for the church to know who it is that is under its authority. Some find the practice of membership authoritarian. But it is actually well in accordance with the freedom of the Christian church that it exercises its authority only over those who voluntarily place themselves under that authority.

God takes our vows very seriously, and so should we. When we make commitments, we should be sure that they are commitments that we intend to keep. God has no pleasure in the sacrifice of fools. He has no pleasure in those who make promises that they do not intend to keep. When we see brothers and sisters in the faith taking these vows and expressing their solemn intent to keep them, by God’s grace, let it be a reminder of the vows we all have taken, and not just our church membership vows, but also our commitments in every area of our lives- our marriage vows, our business contracts and the like. Let it remind us to be people of our word. God always keeps His promises, and we are made in His image.

When we say that the church is a voluntary organization, and that people voluntarily choose to put themselves under its authority, let that not be understood to be saying that church membership is optional. It is optional only in the sense that the Christian life itself is optional. One can choose not to associate with the bride of Christ; by doing so, one chooses not to associate with Christ Himself. This is not to say that church membership is saving of itself, or that all those who do not hold church membership are not believing. But it means that a refusal to be associated with the church of Christ ultimately demonstrates a lack of repentance and faith.

The church is where God has deposited His means of grace- the preaching of the word and the sacraments. Those means of grace operate within the structure of authority that God has ordained to govern the church. If we desire to grow in grace, then we are called to associate ourselves with the church, submit to its authority and lay hold of those means.