When a time of hardship or trial is experienced, what above all keeps us going is hope. Some of the hopes that people cling to are illusions and often in a crisis such hopes fail. Christians are people of hope, one that is not fragile or based in anything in them, but is based on the Lord. Completing our Spiritual Check-up we ask: 9. Do you look forward to glory?
1. The sure purpose
When we think of the ‘last things’ (‘eschatology’) our chief focus must be on God. Our concern is above all with what he has purposed to do. The biblical descriptions of God’s purpose emphasise its certainty (Ephesians 1:11). He is sovereign and his will cannot change or be frustrated. Note Daniel 4:35 ‘he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth and none can stay his hand (ESV). This applies equally to believers’ salvation. Paul is full of confidence that the Lord will preserve believers by his grace (Philippians 1:6). He will not let his people fall finally from grace. We can look forward to glory because of who God is – that is the ground of our hope.
2. The glorious prospects
The hope of believers is centred on the Lord and all we look forward to relates to him. At the heart of our hope is the person of the Lord and our being with him. This has two elements:
(i) In heaven. Immediately upon death the believer enters the presence of the Lord. Note Jesus’ words in Luke 23:43 ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. Paul’s expectation was that he would ‘depart and be with Christ’ (Philippians 1:23) – to depart is to be with Christ, which is ‘better by far’. Much about heaven is beyond our understanding, but we know we will be with ‘the spirits of righteous men made perfect’ (Hebrews 12:23). Such fellowship will be a wonderful part of our blessing. Above all we will enjoy unbroken fellowship with the Lord, with no sin to spoil it. According to 2 Corinthians 5:8 we will be ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord’. That is the prospect for every believer.
(ii) In the new creation. Our hope embraces body and soul, and so Christian hope is for a glorious resurrection (Philippians 3:21). When the Lord returns, he will transform the entire creation – it will be brought into ‘the glorious freedom of the children of God’ (Romans 8:21). The creation itself will undergo transformation to provide a suitable home for the Lord’s people. The ‘new heaven and the new earth’ (2 Peter 2:13) will fully reflect the glory of the Creator, surpassing Eden. That is the ultimate goal of Christian hope.
3. The transformed present
These great prospects are to have 2 practical effects, as seen in 2 Peter 3:14:
‘looking forward to this’ – to final glory and also to the immediate glory of heaven. This should stir hope and anticipation, giving strength for present trials.
‘make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him’ – a powerful stimulus to live ‘holy and godly lives’ (v11), giving faithful service here on earth.
Christians are painfully aware of the prevalence of sin in the world. Everywhere we look we see ample evidence of the sinful heart of man. Worse is the awareness of sin in our own hearts. The danger is that we become accustomed to sin and do not grieve over it as we should. Continuing our Spiritual Check-up we ask: 8. Do you grieve over sin?
1. The holiness of God
Fundamental to God’s self-revelation in Scripture is his holiness. The call of the seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 is ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty’ – the 3-fold repetition indicates the perfection of that holiness. ‘Holy’ in the Bible has the root meaning of ‘separation’. As Creator, God is separate from all created things. This involves his moral separation from all that is contrary to his holy nature (Habakkuk 1:13). That holiness has been made visible in Christ (1 Peter 1:19). As image-bearers of God we are to be holy people. The goal of salvation is the restoration of the image of God lost in Adam. Holiness is crucial for us.
2. The process of sanctification
Notice the goal of Christ’s redeeming work according to Titus 2:14. Thus holiness is central for Christians. We speak of ‘sanctification’, which in Scripture has 2 dimensions:
(i) Definitive sanctification. When we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, the dominion of sin is broken for ever. That is the significance of ‘you were sanctified’ (1 Corinthians 6:11), and Romans 6:14 gives a great promise – ‘sin shall not be your master’.
(ii) Progressive sanctification. Building on the victory of definitive sanctification, the Spirit gradually remakes us in heart and life in the likeness of the Saviour (2 Corinthians 3:18). We are called to be active in this work – ‘be holy in all you do’ (1 Peter 1:15). As we use the means of grace, the Spirit blesses them to us and we grow in holiness. The secret is always ‘it is God who works in you’ (Philippians 2:13).
3. The seriousness of sin
We must not allow the attitudes of the world to blunt our perception of the seriousness of sin. We must see it as God sees it. A mark of grace is a holy hatred of sin, reflecting God’s attitude (Habakkuk 1:13). The psalmist’s words should be ours – Psalm 97:10, 119:104. We should grieve over the sin we see in the world (Psalm 119:136) and in fellow believers Chiefly we are to grieve over our own sin, but not in despair. We need the ‘godly sorrow’ of 2 Corinthians 7:10) which leads to repentance and forgiveness. The solution to our grief over sin is always ready to hand.
4. The prospect of perfection
We long for freedom from sin and that longing for perfection will be satisfied at the last day when sanctification will be complete (Philippians 1:6). We ‘shall be like him’ (1 John 3:2).
A common feature of many churches is ‘one man ministry’, where one man provides the leadership and instruction. This can present dangers for both minister and congregation. In biblical Presbyterianism there is (or should be) corporate leadership which addresses some of these problems. But a fully biblical model of church recognises that all Christians have been given gifts to use. Continuing our Spiritual Check-up we ask: 7. Do you use your gifts?
1. The Giver of the gifts
All gifts come from the Triune God. In particular:
– Ephesians 4:7 tells us ‘to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it’. By his atoning work Christ has purchased all that his people need. Above all he has given the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out at Pentecost (Acts 2).
– The distributor of the gifts is in particular the Holy Spirit. When Paul lists spiritual gifts he says, ‘All these are the work of one and the same Spirit and he gives them to each one just as he determines’ (1 Corinthians 12:11).
2. The diversity of the gifts
The New Testament gives several lists of the gifts of the Spirit – Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28, and Ephesians 4:11. All believers are gifted – ‘he gives them to each one’ (1 Corinthians 12:11). The diversity of gifts is striking. Some are clearly supernatural, whilst others are more ‘ordinary’ (encouraging, showing mercy). It seems the Spirit may enhance abilities already present as well as giving new gifts. We must beware of creating an unbiblical hierarchy of gifts – if a gift is from God, it is valuable. Some gifts are recognised by ordination, but all believers are to use their gifts (14:10).
3. The purpose of the gifts
(i) To equip the church to carry out its mission. Until Christ returns the church has work to do, and by giving gifts the Lord ensures that it is done. The outpouring of the Spirit is linked especially to witness (Acts 1:8). In providing those set aside for office, the Lord’s goal is ‘to prepare God’s people for works of service’ (Ephesians 4:12), to build up the church.
(ii) To provide a foretaste of the age to come. Already we experience something of the life to come, but its full enjoyment awaits the return of Christ. In our experience of the indwelling of the Spirit and the gifts he gives, we have a foretaste of final glory. Spiritual gifts indicate something of the quality of life that we will enjoy, in all its perfection.
4. The responsibility of the gifts
The great blessing of receiving gifts for service brings too great responsibility (Luke 12:48):
– There is an accounting for our use of gifts in the church under the oversight of elders.
– Chiefly at the last day we will give account (Matthew 25:31ff). True believers have served faithfully, often in mundane ways, and the Lord will reward them richly.
Western societies are generally characterised by individualism – a focus on the individual often at the expense of wider social relationships. In contrast to societies in other parts of the world, western societies have weaker social bonds, they are more fragmented and give less attention to family and community life. The church stands, or should stand, in stark contrast to such individualism. All descriptions of the church in Scripture show it is a community, and historically Christians have expressed belief in the ‘communion of the saints’. Continuing our Spiritual Check-up we ask: 6. Do you commune with the saints?
1. The covenant community
The church is not just another social club – it is the covenant community of the people of God. This is the community to which the Lord makes his covenant promise ‘I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people’ (Leviticus 26:12). We are in living covenant fellowship with God through Christ. Fundamental to the church’s identity is union:
(i) We are united to Christ. Those who were dead in sins are, by the power of the Holy Spirit, made alive as he unites us to Christ in his death and resurrection (see Ephesians 2:5-6). This is spelled out at length in Romans 6. We have died to the old life of sin and are made alive in union with Christ to love and serve the Lord who loves us.
(ii) We are united to one another. As a consequence of being united to Christ, we are united to all of the Lord’s redeemed people. This is reflected in in 1 Corinthians 12:27 ‘you are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it’. The believer is linked spiritually to every other believer: ‘we are members of one another’ (Ephesians 4:25).
2. The basic attitude
The fundamental characteristic of the body of Christ is love – ‘love each other as I have loved you’ (John 15:12). The pattern of Christ’s love is to be reproduced in the church, a redemptive, self-sacrificing love (see John 15:13), a love that can be costly. This is not primarily a matter of emotions we feel. Christian love is a deep-seated desire to seek the best for fellow believers, what will enable them to be more like Christ and to serve him faithfully. Note Paul’s concern for the Galatians ‘until Christ is formed in you’ (Galatians 5:19). This love is a work of the Holy Spirit, an aspect of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:22)
3. The mutual ministry
Love is meaningless unless made visible in action. The communion of the saints means giving and receiving loving ministry within the church he bought with his blood and which is precious to us. This requires thoughtful and prayerful consideration of the needs of others (Hebrews 10:24) and a willingness to be considered by others. It is a ministry for every believer, not just for pastors and elders. There is a range of ministry that will employ all our gifts – see 1 Thessalonians 5:11,14. Material needs are included – 1 John 3:17. The communion of the saints should be a great blessing and also a powerful witness to the world.
What distinguishes Christians from other people? Many answers might be given, but above all Christians are distinguished by their worship. This distinguishes them from those of no religion and from adherents of other religions. This offers a valuable means of discerning our spiritual health. Continuing our Spiritual Check-up we ask: 5. Do you delight in worship?
1. What is worship?
It is sometimes said, ‘All of life is worship.’ All of life is to be lived for God’s glory, but we need a more specific definition, faithful to Scripture. ‘Worship is the activity of glorifying God in his presence with our voices and hearts’ (Wayne Grudem). We acknowledge God’s greatness by performing the actions he prescribes, ‘in the beauty of holiness’ (Psalm 96:9). In Hebrews 12:22ff the worship of heaven is described. On earth we reflect something of that.
2. Whom do we worship?
Despite what our pluralist society tells us, all objects of worship are not equal. There is only one God who is to receive worship – he is properly ‘jealous’ (Exodus 20:5) and will not give his glory to another (see Isaiah 48:11). So whom do we worship?
(i) The God revealed in Scripture. We worship him as he reveals himself to be in the Bible, not in any way we imagine. Only thus can we avoid idolatry.
(ii) The God who is Triune. Fundamental to truly Christian worship is the triune nature of God. We worship one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
3. Why do we worship?
(i) God is worthy of worship. That is the fundamental reason. We accord the Triune God the worship that is due to him: ‘you are worthy’ (Revelation 4:11).
(ii) God commands our worship. Worship is not optional. His command is ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only’ (Matthew 4:10). We show love by obeying that call.
(iii) We need to worship. We were created for worship, as bearers of God’s image. Thus worship expresses and feeds our relationship with the Lord – a crucial means of grace.
4. How do we worship?
(i) Through Christ. We come in worship consciously depending on Christ for access and forgiveness. He is the ‘one Mediator between God and men’ (1 Timothy 2:5).
(ii) In the Spirit. Note John 4:24 ‘in Spirit and in truth’. The Spirit must empower our worship – ‘worship by the Spirit of God’ (Philippians 3:3). He fills us with holy zeal.
(iii) By grace. We and our worship are always imperfect. We approach God seeking grace and forgiveness of sin. We are to have the holiness that is essential (Hebrews 12:14).
(iv) With discipline. We must give ourselves to worship. The Enemy will do all he can to hinder us. We need a disciplined commitment to worship, showing how we value it.
(v) With joy. To spend time in the Lord’s presence with his people should rejoice our hearts. It is a good test of our spiritual health: do you delight in worship?
A relationship in which people do not speak to each other will not last long. Silence is as deadly to a relationship as verbal combat. Such basic wisdom is often not applied to our relationship with God. He addresses us constantly in Scripture, and we must respond in prayer. As we continue our spiritual check-up we ask: 4. Do you give yourself to prayer?
1. The ‘WHY’ of prayer
Christians generally find prayer hard work. We need solid reasons for making the effort and giving ourselves to prayer:
(i) God’s nature. The power of prayer lies not in us but in the One to whom we pray. Note:
– God is sovereign. ‘He does whatever pleases him’ (Psalm 135:6). He is able to do all that he wills. This is a powerful motivator – nothing we ask is too big.
– God is gracious. We focus on Christ, in whom ‘we have everything we need for life and godliness’ (2 Peter 1:3). Hence the promise of Philippians 4:19 ‘meet all your needs’.
(ii) Our need. The greatest obstacle to a healthy prayer life is the lack of a sense of need of the Lord’s provision. Paul asks, ‘What do you have that you did not receive?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7). Both material and spiritual help come under the ‘daily bread’ of Matthew 6:11. Prayer is not a substitute for work (where possible), but it acknowledges our need and mortifies pride.
2. The ‘WHAT’ of prayer
Verses such as 1 John 3:22 are not a blank cheque to obtain anything we desire. Note John 14:14 ‘ask me for anything in my name’ – requesting what accords with his nature and plan. His name is not a magic charm to get whatever we want. Also we must pray ‘according to his will’ (1 John 5:14). We may not know his will in the details of life, but Scripture directs us on the big issues. It is not wrong to pray ‘if it is your will’. Note ‘things agreeable to his will’ (S. Catechism Q98). We have a vast field for prayer and that encourages big petitions.
3. The ‘HOW’ of prayer
(i) Confession. Our disobedience blocks answers to prayer (e.g. James 4:3). We must be as sure as we can of the purity of our motives. Confession of sin is part of a healthy prayer life.
(ii) Faith. Prayer expresses trust in Christ and his promises. We rest in promises such as Philippians 4:19. Praying by the Word strengthens faith and removes uncertainty.
(iii) Dependence. We depend especially on the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 6:18). We are to pray empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, or prayer will soon flag.
(iv) Thanksgiving. It is right and necessary to give thanks for blessings received. It also encourages future praying – Philippians 4:6 ‘by prayer and petition with thanksgiving’. If the Lord is the centre of our attention, thanksgiving will flow naturally.
It is often striking how alike members of the same family can be. They may share particular characteristics over several generations, including traits of character. The family likeness can be quite obvious. In the family of God, his children are to share God’s likeness, particularly Christ’s likeness. So in our check-up we come to 3. Do you long to be like Jesus?
1. The pattern
Those who are saved by grace (see Ephesians 2:8) are to be – and will be – transformed. Note:
(i) Jesus the perfect man. The church must be careful to assert the full humanity of Jesus. He still has a body and soul like ours, with the single exception of sin. Thus in order to save us, ‘he had to be made like his brothers in every way’ (Hebrews 2:16), including temptation (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus is everything that humanity was created to be, and so he is the perfect pattern to which we are to be conformed.
(ii) Jesus our example. The redemptive work of Jesus is unique, but in all other respects his life is the perfect example of loving conformity to God’s law (1 Peter 1:19). The desire of all God’s children is to be like their elder brother, Jesus. Note 1 John 2:6 ‘Whoever claims to live like him must walk as Jesus walked’. He is our ‘example’ (1 Peter 2:21). This is clear in his command in John 15:12 ‘Love each other as I have loved you’.
2. The progress
Central to Christian living is the command of 1 Peter 1:15 ‘just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do’. Holiness is to be understood in terms of likeness to Christ. This is Paul’s theme in 2 Corinthians 3:18 – progressive sanctification as the Holy Spirit reproduces in us the likeness of the Saviour. Ultimately this is God’s work: ‘it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (Philippians 2:13). Galatians 5:22-23 on ‘the fruit of the Spirit’, describes for us the character of Jesus which is to be increasingly evident in us. The Lord’s chief concern is with the heart – the centre of our being, including our thoughts, motives and feelings (see e.g. Proverbs 4:23). God is concerned first with our being and then with the doing that flows from it. What kind of heart do you have? We must not fail to see that we have a duty to be active in this transformation, by the Spirit’s enabling. We must use the means of grace that the Lord provides, including feeding on the Word.
3. The perfection
In our battle with sin, we have the encouragement that the Lord will complete his work:
(i) In the present. Romans 6:14 ‘sin shall not be your master’. Christ is our Lord and he will remake us in his likeness. We are not doomed to perpetual defeat.
(ii) In the future. Our souls are perfected at death – ‘spirits of righteous men made perfect’ (Hebrews 12:23) and at the Lord’s return ‘we shall be like him’ (1 John 3:2-3), body and soul.
As we pursue our Spiritual Check-up, God does not leave us in the dark regarding the marks of a healthy Christian life. We are not to be influenced by the attitudes and values of the culture around us, or we may come to think that the busier we are, the healthier we must be. Today we turn to consider something that is vital for growth: 2. Do you feed on Scripture?
1. Why should you feed on Scripture?
Once new life has begun by the work of the Holy Spirit, we are to grow spiritually, and in order to grow we need food. The Lord has provided spiritual food for his people in Scripture (Psalm 111:5). Two reasons why we should feed on Scripture:
(i) Scripture is God-breathed. We feed on Scripture because of the kind of book the Bible is. The Bible is utterly unique – ‘God-breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16). The entire Bible has its origin in God. As 2 Peter 1:19 tells us, the written word of Scripture is even more sure than the voice of God on the mountain of transfiguration. Note 2 Peter 1:21 ‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.’ What Scripture says, God says.
(ii) Scripture is transforming. That is so in 2 fundamental ways:
- In conversion: Often the Spirit uses the Word in vital ways as he brings sinners to conversion (see 1 Peter 1:23). He applies the Word to awaken and draw sinners to Christ.
- In sanctification. As the Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18) he applies the Word powerfully to stir a hatred of sin and a desire for holiness. Psalm 19:7-8 describes the practical transforming effect of the Word.
2. How should you feed on Scripture?
(i) With prayer. This is essential. Much of Scripture is beyond our natural capacities (see 2 Peter 3:16) but we have the ministry of the Spirit to enable us to understand and obey. Prayer is a cry for the help of the Spirit. Psalm 119:18 is a good prayer to use before Bible study.
(ii) With humility. We come as humble learners, not as masters of the Word. This means submitting our intellects to the authority of Scripture, not setting ourselves up as judges of what we are willing to accept. We should take Samuel’s words in 1 Samuel 3:10 as our own.
(iii) With eagerness. It is a mark of grace in our hearts when we delight in God’s Word. There are many examples in the psalms – such as Psalm 119:97. There is to be no half-hearted engagement with the Word. Our attitude to Scripture shows our attitude to God.
(iv) With obedience. Obedience is frequently commanded in Scripture. James 1:22 ‘be doers of the word, and not hearers only’. To be a hearer only is ‘deceiving yourselves’. It is dangerously easy to substitute listening alone for receiving and acting on the Word. There ought to be increasing obedience alongside increasing understanding. This is rooted in love: ‘This is love for God: to obey his commands’ (1 John 5:3) – a good test of spiritual health.
We have been living through testing times, internationally, nationally and personally. We have the assurance that God is sovereign in these events. As professing Christians we may have found our faith challenged and tested. We may well have had fresh experiences of God’s grace. As we begin a new, and different, season of work, this is a good time to take stock. In the coming weeks we will undertake a Spiritual Check-up, examining ourselves in the light of God’s Word. We begin with 1. Do you love the Lord?
1. Do you love him because he saved you?
In Psalm 116:1 the psalmist recounts his experience of God’s grace. When he was at the end of his resources, he cried out to the Lord who heard and delivered him. We are right to apply the psalmist’s words to the great issues of sin and salvation. The biggest question we all have to face is – are you saved? This is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. Whatever our bodily and mental health may be, the Bible tells us clearly that spiritually our natural condition is death: ‘dead in your transgressions and sins’ (Ephesians 2:1). Into this grim situation comes the Good News of the gospel – ‘believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved’ (Acts 16:31). The work of the Son of God in his life, death and resurrection has provided all that is necessary for sinners’ salvation and it is the fruit of God’s eternal love for sinners. 1 John 4:19 tells believers, ‘We love because he first loved us’. As we experience God’s love in Christ, we are set free to love him (and others). Any claim to be a Christian is empty unless it is accompanied by love for the Lord.
2. Do you love him because he provides for you?
Christians are able to address God as ‘Our father in heaven’ (Matthew 6:9). As a perfect father, he knows and provides for all the needs of his children, much more than an earthly father (Matthew 7:11). This is ‘God who provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Timothy 6:17). In response we are filled with love and thankfulness for the supply we have in Christ (Psalm 31:23). The test of the genuineness of our love is – do we love him when he disciplines us in love (Hebrews 12:6). We do not love only when his provision is easy to accept. This is true also in trials – James 1:2. In all circumstances God’s promise is ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Corinthians 12:9). Are we growing in love for him?
3. Do you show your love for him by obedience?
The Bible makes clear that a profession of love for the Lord is empty unless there is solid evidence for that claim. That evidence is obedience. The Bible never sees any tension or contradiction between loving the Lord and obeying him. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John14:15). In one sense this is a statement – this is what will flow from loving him. It is also a command, coming with the full authority of the Lord – this is what we must do. We must not fall into the error of the Pharisees. They were outstanding keepers of the law, yet Jesus condemned them (Mark 7:6). Mere outward keeping of the rules is insufficient. The obedience the Lord requires flows from love (1 John 5:3). Here is a good test to apply as we take stock spiritually: is our love shown in obedience?