God Is Fair

My children are the fairness police in our home–and most violations have to do with snacks. Here’s how it plays out. One child comes to me and asks for an apple or a string cheese or a cookie, and if they get it, what do they do? Immediately, they go into the other room and parade around in front of their siblings. Without fail, one by one each of them comes into the kitchen, “Hey, that’s not fair. She has a cookie. I want one, too!”

Fairness is wanting one standard for everyone. A child’s mind assumes a fair universe: “If one of us gets a cookie, we all get a cookie.” The same standard for every kid. The good news—and bad news depending—is that we do live in a universe governed by absolute fairness. God’s justice is quite fair:

“…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

2 Thessalonians 1:6-8

A Just Repayment.

“God considers it just to repay.” When Jesus returns, everyone will be repaid according to what he has done in this life. Paul puts it this way in Romans:

“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”

Romans 2:6-8

Let’s say you were to invest your money–month after month, year after year putting it into a mutual fund. After decades of investing, you call up your portfolio manager as you roll out of your retirement party to find out what’s waiting in your account. Your broker responds: “Great news! After all your money-saving, here’s what I’ve secured for you: a lifetime supply of hotdogs! But wait, there’s a bonus–a warehouse full of cotton candy!”  You would be unhappy, to say the least. You have invested money. You expect to be repaid in money–not hotdogs…or cotton candy.

So, what return should human beings expect on all of the sin we keep investing, day after day? For the evil thoughts of our minds? For the evil intentions of our hearts? For the evil words of our mouths? For the evil actions of our hands?

What is the fair market going to return to you on the Last Day for my sin? Paul writes, “Indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict…” I can’t think of a more fair repayment than affliction for affliction. Why should God have regard for me if I have had no regard for him? This is not God being petty; this is God being fair. It is my just repayment. I have had no regard for God. I have not obeyed his King. God will have no regard for me nor will he allow me into his Kingdom (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

But, brothers and sisters, this is the good news for those of us who follow Jesus Christ and suffer for the sake of his Kingdom. When we suffer unjustly, when we are treated unfairly, when we are afflicted for Christ’s sake, God’s fairness guarantees us a just repayment: “…and [He will] grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us” (2 Thessalonians 1:7).

Are you tired of suffering? Are you weary of affliction? Cry out for the return of Jesus! The rest is coming with Him. Our just repayment for affliction in this life will be eternal, satisfying rest in the next. On that day, all accounts will be settled by just repayment.

A Fair Standard for All.

On the Day of Judgment, no one will be able to accuse God of being unfair. Each of us will get exactly what we have cried out for. The standard will be the same for everyone. For the rich and the poor. For the oppressed and the oppressor. For the black and the white and the brown and every other color. For the old and the young. For the Christian and the non-Christian. This shall be the fair standard for us all: the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the fair standard. He is the measuring stick. Each of us will be measured against his perfect righteousness.

But none of us can measure up to Jesus. Exactly. That’s the fairness of God’s justice. He does not bend his standard for the rich and powerful–or even for the religious. Our inability to measure up is the reason why Jesus preaching this message: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This is not a suggestion, this is not even an offer. This is a command. Paul says, “…obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). Every human being who does not obey the gospel call of Jesus Christ, will suffering the vengeance for the sins we’ve been stockpiling against a Holy God all our lives.

The Gospel of Fairness.

The fairness of God is good news to those of us who have obeyed the gospel. The gospel of our Lord Jesus says that for those who have repented and believed, our faith is “counted to us” as righteousness (Romans 4:22-25). The very righteousness of Jesus himself—every good deed, every act of obedience, every submission to the Father’s will—is given to us by faith as a gift (Romans 3:22-24).

This is why the fairness of God’s justice is such good news: There is nothing we can add. The standard by which all men and women will be judged before God is the righteousness of Jesus Christ–and we who have obeyed the Gospel have been clothed with that very righteousness. The God who set the standard has satisfied that standard–completely–in us through Christ.

What remains for us is not a life of trying to measure up or to improve our standing before God, but to live and rejoice in the righteousness of Christ. Trusting in the power of God to make us worthy to enter his Kingdom, we enter into “every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in [us]” (2 Thessalonians 1:11-12).

Today’s culture tells us what we need more than anything else is fairness. Fair pay, fair treatment, fair laws. Fairness will reign one day–if not in this life then in the next. What you and I need now more than ever is not fairness but forgiveness. May we trust that one day just repayment will be meted out for every affliction, sin, and injustice. May we believe that all will be judged by the same standard in the courtroom of God. And may it drive us to the feet of King Jesus pleading for his mercy.

(photo credit)

The Blessing of “And”

Preparing a new sermon on 2 Thessalonians last week, I carried a photocopy of the Greek text into the gym with me (as I often do). For about an hour, I couldn’t make it past the first two words of the letter:

“Paul and…”

2 Thessalonians 1:1

And. Such a seemingly insignificant word. The ESV replaces it with a comma–it’s not proper English to say “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” But I couldn’t get over the meaning invested in that second word of Paul’s letter: Paul…and.

This is actually a quite common way for Paul to begin a letter. Both 1 and 2 Thessalonians begin this way: “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” In fact, of his 10 letters written to churches, 7 of them begin Paul and… They aren’t merely addressed from Paul alone, but from Paul and: Paul and a co-laborer, Paul and a partner in the gospel, Paul and a fellow minister of the gospel.

This isn’t coincidental. Beginning with his earliest letters Paul knows and wants us to know the blessing of “and.”

Not Alone.

Perhaps you know what Paul experienced just before he planted the Thessalonian church. He and Silas and Timothy were just up the valley in a city called Philippi. After casting a demon out of a little girl, rioters attacked them, stripped them naked, beat them with nightsticks, and threw them in jail (Acts 16:22-23). Bloody and black-eyed, Paul found himself spending a sore night in a Philippian jail.

But when the midnight watchmen took their post, they heard a strange noise rising from the dungeon. A voice. Paul was singing. And then a second voice. Paul and Silas were singing. Bruised ribs heaved as fat lips formed the joyful praises of risen Savior. Hymn after hymn floated from the jail cell as Paul leaned into the blessing of “and.” He was not alone. A fellow minister of the gospel, a friend, a co-laborer was shackled to the wall next to him.

“Paul and Silas…” The opening three words of 2 Thessalonians remind us of that prison cell. It’s a beautiful illustration of the blessing of “and.”

One man can sing just fine by himself, but it took two men in that jail cell to harmonize. One eye can see just fine by itself, but it takes two eyes to see with three-dimensional depth. This is the beauty Paul is communicating in the opening words of 2 Thessalonians. It’s the beauty of men working together to lead the churches of God. The harmony, the sharing of authority, the mutual recognition, the protection, the camaraderie, the friendship of co-laborers in the gospel ministry.

From his earliest endeavors, Paul wanted fledgling churches to know that they hadn’t joined a personality cult. Paul and…indicated to the Thessalonians that Paul is one of many ambassadors and co-laborers in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

First and 2 Thessalonians are the first letters of Paul and the earliest Christian writings in the New Testament. In them, he uses the pronoun “I” only eight times. Compare that with a whopping seventy-four occurrences (!) of the word “we.” Furthermore, consider how even in his very first epistle, he is encouraging believers to honor and respect the ministers of the gospel in their local church (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13). Paul was spreading the blessing of “and” to every church he planted.

Co-laborers.

Brothers and sisters, if we will receive Paul’s instruction and example, every one of us ought to be pleading:

Lord, give us the blessing of “and.” One man preaching the gospel alone is good, but we want “Paul and Silas and Timothy.” In the church, we want the most full-orbed, well-rounded, beautiful gospel proclamation possible, resounding in every prison cell in this town, finding its way into the dorm rooms and nursing homes and houses, echoing off the walls of classrooms and in the streets. We want the harmonic gospel of Jesus Christ proclaimed by a plurality of elders and pastors uniting their voices to sing the praises of the one Shepherd.

We are all shaped by different passions and experiences and opportunities and spiritual gifts, and the most beautiful gospel is going to be sung from the pulpit week after week by different men, not the same voice every week–as good as that voice may be. Different voices provide different emphases. Different voices demonstrate gospel plurality—that men and women from different ages and backgrounds and colors are all saved by the same Jesus and draw into the diverse body of Christ. Men old (like Paul and Silas), men young (like Timothy).

Let us pray for the blessing of “and”. The loneliness and dejection are palpable when as an old man Paul writes, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16). Brothers and sisters, if the Apostle Paul desperately needed co-laborers and fellow ministers, every pastor does. No pastor is meant to preach the gospel alone.

May each of our churches be filled with fellow prisoners of the Cross, men in chains harmonizing in beautiful plurality to the glory of Christ!

(photo by Martina Flor)

2.6 — David Brainerd and Power in Weakness

On March 20, 1747, a twenty-nine year old David Brainerd said goodbye to his congregation of Delaware Indians for the last time. His long battle with tuberculosis ended in Northhampton, Massachusetts, on a bed in the home of Jonathan Edwards. He passed away October 9, 1747.

Brainerd had been a missionary for only four years.

He’d only seen a handful of converts.

He had only been a believer for eight years.

During the two years following his death, Jonathan Edwards compiled Brainerd’s diaries and journal and published them as An Account of the Life of the Late Rev. David Brainerd. It has been in print ever since. John Wesley insisted it was a must read for every preacher.  William Carey called it “almost a second Bible.” Robert Murray M’Cheyne would write: “Oh, to have Brainerd’s heart for perfect holiness.” The book would become the best-selling religious book in 19th century America and Jonathan Edwards’s most read work.

Learn why this man’s weakness has demonstrated the power of God to generation after generation of missionaries, pastors, and Christians.

Here are some further resources:

New Posts @ TGC and Southern Equip: ‘Chiasms’ and ‘Hope’

I’ve got a couple of articles up at The Gospel Coalition and Southern Seminary’s blog Southern Equip on two totally different topics, with two totally different tones. The first explores chiasm and symmetry in Scripture. The second shares personal testimony about my own struggles in the early years of ministry and the hope I found in the Lord.

How Should I Preach Chiasms?

“Chiasms give us a feeling of completion—of coming full circle, from creation to re-creation. If chiasms are woven into God’s Word, the question isn’t whether we will preach them, but how.

Here are four basic tips to help you recognize and employ chiasms in your sermons.”

Where a Desperate Small-town Pastor Found Hope

“I’m an insignificant pastor in a small church in a forgettable town. Many of my friends have gone on to plant or pastor successful churches with exponential growth, vibrant community, and lush gospel fruit. That hasn’t been my experience. My guess is, there are a lot of you out there in the same boat with me.”

2.5 — Hudson Taylor and A Heart for the Lost

In 1861, Hudson Taylor contracted a serious illness, forcing him to leave behind a fledging church of 21 believers in Ningpo, China, and return to England in hope of recovery. While away, the lost souls of inland China plagued Hudson’s conscience: “The feeling of blood guiltiness became more and more intense…every day tens of thousands were passing away to Christless graves! Perishing China so filled my heart and mind that there was no rest by day, and little sleep by night till health broke down.” He prayed for China. He poured his labors into revision of the Chinese New Testament. Still, his soul could not find rest.

By June 1865, Hudson’s health had improved, and he was invited to Sunday worship in Brighton by friend George Pearse. The experience left him utterly broken:

“Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security, while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual pain; and there the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service.”

It was that Sunday afternoon on a sandy beach on the South coast of England that Hudson, age 33, was moved to start the China Inland Mission. Missionaries of the CIM would adopt the dress of schoolteachers for the poor, do a combination of medical care and evangelistic preaching, and depend solely upon prayer for financial support. Initially, he prayed for 24 missionaries to begin the work. Less than a year later, he set sail for China with his prayers answered.

On this podcast, discover Hudson Taylor’s burning passion to reach the lost.

Here are some further resources:

Huck Finn and the Providential Benefit of a Good Novel

N O T I C E

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G. G., Chief of Ordnance

With this unilateral prohibition, Mark Twain warns off any conscientious readers from setting foot in his greatest novel. Of course, his threat only serves to excite the very thing it forbids. Like trespassing vandals, we shrug off his violent injunction and enter The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at our own peril—shovel in hand—eager to unearth motive, moral, and plot even if we have to dig them from a deadman’s grave.

Those who ignore the author’s satirical notice never leave empty-handed. Huck Finn is rife with moral complexities, clear themes, and compelling narratives. However, we may not be pleased with the loot we gather from the story. Many readers finish the adventure with a deep sense of frustration and displeasure. To them, Twain winks an eye: “Can’t say I didn’t warn you…”

Torrential Providence.

Twain’s tale is straightforward in one sense. It chronicles the adventures of a young town pariah and a runaway slave. Huck and Jim encounter one another on Jackson Island after escaping captivity—Huck from a locked cabin and his abusive father, Jim from his owner Miss Watson and the prospect of being sold to slave traders. The two are forced to the fateful decision to try their luck on the river.

Surging through the novel like an unpredictable, undulating serpent is the mighty Mississippi. The river is an unfeeling, irresistible force that holds absolute sway over the course of events that unfolds chapter by chapter. Early in the novel, Huck wrestles with whether to trust “Providence.” However, as Twain’s narrative flows downstream, he shows how mistaken Huck and the rest of the characters are to even conceive of a capital ‘P’ Providence. In his mind, providence is an emotionless river. Providence often punishes good men and rewards scoundrels. Providence has a lower-case ‘p’; it is not something to trust so much as an inevitability we must come to accept. We cannot miss Twain’s cynicism: the flow of life’s current is completely outside our control.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the futility of life and the scrambling of morals. When the river swallows a shipwrecked steamboat along with three ruffians aboard, Huck feels guilty for stealing their boat to save his own skin—guilty of murder! When Huck and Jim’s raft is commandeered by two testy vagrants, they feel powerless to resist. Town by town, Huck is forced with uneasy conscience to participate in their shameless scams. When he finally tries to do what’s right, intervening on behalf of sisters who are about to be swindled out of their inheritance, everything goes wrong. Twain’s point in all these river adventures is that we are passive actors in this life, largely unable to change the events around us and foiled in our best attempts to do good.

Twain steers the plot in a way meant to confound us at every river-bend. At the close of Chapter 29, when it seems Huck and Jim are finally free of the infernal Duke and King, the author refuses us the satisfaction. The two conmen come bursting from the shore to recapture the raft. We share Huck’s hopeless despair: “So I wilted right down onto the planks then, and give up; and it was all I could do to keep from crying.”

The Long Con.

In the end, Twain proves to be the greatest conman of them all. Huck’s serendipitous encounter with pal Tom Sawyer late in the novel gives us brief hope things may end well after all. However, much like the King and Duke, Tom coopts the entire narrative and all its characters to create his own ever complicating and confounding Quixotic adventure. The reintroduction of Tom—and his nonsensical imagination—as the story wanes should tip us off to Twain’s devious scheme. It doesn’t.

The author saves his wry twist for the moment when it will inflict the most shame on his readers. After using Tom to drag out the novel’s conclusion for what feels like an eternity, he gives Tom the honors of unraveling everything. Tom reveals a preposterous truth: Jim has been free all along! Tom explains that Miss Watson is dead and granted Jim’s freedom in her will. Twisting the sharp blade of irony, Jim then reveals a secret he’s kept the whole journey: Huck’s murderous father is dead as well.

The fateful decision Huck and Jim made at the story’s outset was based on false pretenses. Jim and Huck had risked life and limb on the Mississippi for nothing.

Cracking the spine of Huckleberry Finn is like buying tickets for what promises to be a fantastic show—it’s Mark Twain for goodness’ sake! However, when the curtain rises Twain himself “comes a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and…painted all over, ring-streaked and striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow.” Wagging his bare, be-striped rear in our faces and cutting a shine, Twain then exits stage right. As the curtain falls, we realize the whole novel was one big farce.

Twain is the ultimate Tom Sawyer. He creates a fanciful world that pretends at meaning, that feigns at purpose, that gives just enough hope for redemption. As we close the book, Twain leaves us blushing. Having transgressed his initial warning, we are left with a sense of regret for having ever indulged his ill-fated saga.

True Character in a Fictional Narrative.

Twain’s point is to satirize the human instinct to search for a meaning in this universe. How foolish for us to pretend that there is any point to the story we are living—that it has any sort of sensible conclusion or triumphant finish. Rather, all human existence sputters to an embarrassingly pointless finale. In his conception of reality, we are all voyagers on the fickle yet omnipotent Mississippi. To believe otherwise is to play pretend.

However, Huck Finn is not meaningless. Certainly the plot takes a rather circular turn, yet we cannot help but recognize that the characters caught up in this epic have been forever changed by their participation in it. Herein lies the value of fiction literature. Although the circumstances shaping Huck’s journey were false, the character he develops along the Mississippi isn’t.

In Chapter 31, Huckleberry comes to a crisis moment while separated from Jim. He must choose whether to send word to Miss Watson of the location her runaway or to commit what is in his mind the unforgivable sin: Help Jim attain his freedom for good. Obviously, Huck’s morals have been completely twisted around by the perverted influences in his life. Nonetheless, he makes what he believes to be a damnable decision out of love for Jim. After first writing the letter to Miss Watson, he says, “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

Crisis moments like these are why fiction is an invaluable gift. If we are willing to suspend disbelief and enter a fictional reality for a few hundred pages, we can emerge out the back cover changed. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior explains the way fiction forms virtue: “Plot reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character. Through the imagination, readers identify with the character, learning about human nature and their own nature through their reactions to the vicarious experience” (20-21).

We don’t have to receive Twain’s fatalistic worldview to benefit from our journey down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. We knew implicitly that the entire perilous trek filled with bandits, shipwrecks, starvation, violent family feuds, and manhunts was a complete fiction from the start. When we nevertheless willingly enter into each moral dilemma with Huck, our own wrong perspectives are being deconstructed. Real virtue is being built in its place.

Good and Bad Reading.

To read fiction with no other objective than entertainment is to be like Tom Sawyer. Unlike Huck, he has read the great novels. But his mind is stuck in the realm of disbelief—or rather, make-believe. Sawyer misses the entire point of fiction to begin with. It is not merely a means of escape from reality, but it is a place where we can abscond for a few hours to develop true character that bears fruit when we return to the real world.

Sports are a perfect modern day example of the way fiction develops character. We agree to play by certain made-up rules inside arbitrarily drawn lines for a random amount of time with foolish things like balls, sticks, and rackets. And yet, when young men and women step inside the lines of that field or court—a realm based on a fabrication as false as the one that steered Huck’s raft down the Mississippi—it becomes a place to cultivate true grit, integrity, and virtue. No one can deny that.

The notice nailed to the cover of Huckleberry Finn gives us fair warning. The providential hand of Mark Twain that steers our raft through his novel will not allow us to leave his fictional world the same. We will feel the pinch of conflicts with no clear resolution. We will be confronted by the contradictions in our own morals. We will question how we have been shaped by wrongheaded societal norms.

What a wry twist indeed that a novel meant to satirize providence can be used by Providence to change Huckleberrys like you and me.

(photo credit)

2.4 — Adoniram Judson and Counting the Cost

Today 3,700 Baptist congregations in Myanmar trace their origins to the ministry of one man: Adoniram Judson. The only Burmese Bible in existence was translated by this Baptist missionary. Hundreds were set free from the oppression of Buddhism during his lifetime, many missionaries were raised up, and a legacy of gospel proclamation was laid in Burma.

But at what cost? Judson suffered from malaria, persecution, despair, imprisonment, beatings, starvation, and the loss of two wives and seven children. He left behind friends and family. He died at sea.

Are the lost and dying nations worth the cost of bringing them the gospel? Judson writes of the desperation of the Burmese:

“The Spirit of inquiry…is spreading everywhere, through the whole length and breadth of the land…Some come two or three months’ journey, from the borders of Siam and China—‘Sir, we hear that there is an eternal hell. We are afraid of it. Do give us a writing that will tell us how to escape it.’ Others, from the frontiers of Kathay, 100 miles north of Ava—‘Sir, we have seen a writing that tells of an eternal God. Are you the man that gives away such writings? If so, pray give us one, for we want to know the truth before we die.’”

This is his story. Count the cost with Mr. Judson.

Here are some further resources: