Category Archives: Christian living

Overcoming the Fear of Man

I know what it’s like to be blinded by the fear of what others might think of me. If you’ve got human DNA in your cells, I suspect you do too. It’s not a rare problem. We can easily be blinded or even paralyzed by according ourselves the ability to read another person’s mind and know the estimation they’ll form of us — and then let that control what we’ll say or do. This especially can happen when we’re in front of an opportunity to acknowledge Christ and his place in our lives. This can happen when there’s an opportunity for us to be known or seen as a Christian.

When I was 17 years old I had an English assignment due.  We were supposed to read a novel and write a report.  I’d left it to the last minute.  I looked through the list of books and saw George Orwell’s 1984.  I’d read that book in Grade 6, so I kind of knew the story-line.  But then I remembered that it’d been made into a movie.  I’d seen the movie on the shelf at my local video store.  So I thought:  I’ll just watch the movie, review the plot-line that way, and then write my report.  I can get it all done in two or three hours.  I went to the video store and bragged to the guy behind the counter about my plan.  He then asked me which school I went to.  I didn’t want to tell him that I went to a Christian school.  I was ashamed of that, so I told him I went to the local public school.  He said, “Oh, I went there too.  Who’s your English teacher?”  I lied again and made up some name.  He said, “Oh, I never heard of her before, is she new?”  I lied again and just tried my best to get out of there as quickly as I could.  I had the fear of man in me something strong.  I wanted to be seen as cool and edgy, even by this stranger.  I didn’t want to be seen as connected with a Christian school, or anything Christian.

The Bible describes this problem. Just think of the Gospel According to John. There are at least three instances where we see men and women frozen by the fear of man.

The most famous would be in John 3 when Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. True, the text doesn’t actually say that Nicodemus did this because he was afraid, but it’s a legitimate conclusion.

In John 9, the parents of the man born blind who’d been healed by Jesus, hesitated to say anything about Jesus. Why? “…Because they feared the Jews, for the Jews already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). Excommunication hung over their heads. It petrified them and so they didn’t want to come anywhere near being seen as supporters of Jesus, even though he’d healed their son.

Finally, at the end of John 12 we’re told that many of the Jewish authorities believed in Jesus, but hid it. This is the reason: “….for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42-43). Again, there was a fear of excommunication and social exclusion.

The Bible not only describes the problem, it also addresses it. The gospel tells us of a Saviour who was never blinded or paralyzed by the fear of man. He feared God, but not man. If you believe in Jesus Christ, his obedience is credited to you. The gospel tells us of a Saviour who also died on the cross for the scared witless, those whose sinful hearts give in to foolish fear. That’s a sin for which he paid the penalty too. Through Christ, there’s forgiveness for the fear of man.

Through Christ’s Spirit, there’s also a way to overcome the fear of man. We’re not doomed to be stuck in this rut of fear. Think of 2 Timothy 1:7, “…for God gave us not a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.” With his strength, the Holy Spirit makes believers bold — certainly we see that in the book of Acts. Peter, who not long before had himself been seized by the fear of man, now speaks boldly for the Lord. The Spirit has changed him and gifted him with this boldness. He can do the same for us.

So, if you’re struggling with the fear of man, what can you do? As an essential first step: pray for the Holy Spirit to overcome your fear. Pray for him to fill you and drive out your fear. Ask him to work in your heart so that you’re bold and fearless, especially when given opportunities to confess the name of Christ. Here’s what happens as we do that:

“When I called, you answered me; you made me bold and stouthearted.” (Psalm 138:3, NIV).


It Makes No Sense

Once there was a young man hanging out with his friends.  They were bored so they decided to do something exciting.  One of the people in the neighbourhood had some pear trees.  He was one of those people obsessive about his trees.  He didn’t want people on his property taking his pears.  In other words, he was the perfect target for these bored young people.  They jumped the fence, snuck into his yard, and stole a bunch of his pears.  They ran back out as quickly as they could, hoping not to get caught — or maybe to get caught and make a close escape.  Once they made their get-away, they looked at the pears.  They were ugly and inedible.  They threw the pears to some pigs.

The young man was Augustine, who later became known as one of the church fathers.  He wrote about this in his classic book Confessions – which, if you’ve never read it, you really need to.  It’s the most readable book by Augustine and tremendously edifying.  Augustine reflected on the pear incident in Confessions.  Why did he do it?  Simply, he says, for “the excitement of stealing and doing something wrong.”  Augustine goes on to write about how sin is always irrational and self-destructive, and yet we love it just the same.  This is what he says:

I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself.  It was foul, and I loved it.  I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself….I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.

Augustine did this when he was still an unbeliever.  He wasn’t converted to Christ until much later.  But if you read further in his Confessions, it becomes clear how the irrational and self-destructive nature of sin hounded him his whole life, even after becoming a Christian.  He’s really honest about that.

I can relate and I’m sure you can too, if you’ve given it any thought.  Why do we sin?  If we’d stop and think for a moment, we’d see the utter stupidity of what we’re doing.  But sin blinds us.  It makes us deaf to reason.  Sin turns us into fools.  We know God is holy.  We know he hates sin.  We know he will punish sin with unquenchable wrath.  Yet we do it.  We sin every day with our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

Now the gospel tells us that God will forgive all our sins through Christ and so we go to Christ to escape the coming wrath.  We’re assured of forgiveness through him.  You’d think that would make us into people filled with love and thanksgiving, people wanting to obey and please our Father in heaven who has loved us so much.  Yet instead, so often, we forget his love, we trample on the gospel, and still want to do things our own way.  Does it make any sense?  Not to me.  And yet, sin has compelled me and sin will compel me.  The same is true for you.  For all of us, we’re burdened with the utter irrationality of our wickedness.  For a Christian, it’s totally frustrating.

But let me encourage you.  If you see the senselessness of sin, take heart because this is God’s work in you with his Holy Spirit.  If sin frustrates you, it’s because God has opened your eyes through regeneration.  The way forward involves awareness of your plight and God grants that gift to all his children.

God doesn’t stop there.  The Holy Spirit also works with the Word so there is actual growth in our lives.  True Christians can and will make progress in holiness.  The growth may be slow and many times it can be imperceptible.  Sometimes, sadly, Christians backslide too.  Nevertheless, the overall trend in a Christian’s godliness is upward.  That’s something we want, something we strive for, and something God graciously grants.  By God’s grace, we are being set free from the senselessness of sin.  We are on our way to a place and state where everything we do, say, and think will finally make sense.


I Recommend

I don’t often share links in this space, but I’ve got three that I shared on social media today that are definitely worth passing on here too:

January/February 2020 Reformed Perspective

If you’re not familiar with it, this is a great Reformed magazine and it’s available as a free download.

Church Should Be Your Excuse for Missing Everything Else

Regular habitual church attendance is essential for spiritual health.  As the author says:

…the reality is that I have never known a casual attendee to thrive in any meaningful capacity. I have yet to meet another pastor/elder that can testify to the exemplary faith of the professing Christian who abdicates regular church attendance. I have witnessed seasons of growth from them, yet I have simultaneously witnessed a stunted growth because invariably, they are sporadically absent from the ordinary means God has given them for their maturity, encouragement, and perseverance in the Christian faith. More often than this stunted growth though is no growth at all, or worse, a “back-sliding” of sorts.

Jesus Devastates an Old-Earth

When it comes to the age of the earth and similar issues, why don’t we just listen to our Lord Jesus?  After all, he was there “at the beginning.”  He knows what he’s talking about.

 


I Got to Keep On Movin’

One of my favourite places in Hamilton, Ontario is the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.  I’ve lived in Hamilton twice, once as a seminary student and then later as a pastor.  During both stints, I made multiple visits to the CWHM – I love the place.

If you should ever happen to visit, at the front you’ll see a beautiful plane going nowhere fast.  It’s a Canadian-built CF-104 Starfighter.  It’s mounted on a pedestal and headed skyward.  During the Cold War this pointy jet was flying at supersonic speeds over northern Alberta and West Germany, but now it’s looking good but going nowhere fast.  It’s what we call a static display.  “Static” means it’s going nowhere.

The Warplane Heritage Museum is unique because it not only includes static displays like the CF-104, but also vintage aircraft maintained in flying condition.  The most famous of these is the World War 2 Avro Lancaster.  It’s not a fast plane:  cruising speed is a measly 210 mph.  A few years ago, the old bomber made a trip to the UK.  On the way back, it left on a Tuesday morning and arrived back in Hamilton on Sunday.  They didn’t fly the entire time – there were weather delays and such things as they crossed the North Atlantic.  The Lancaster has never been known for its speed.  Yet, compared to the Starfighter out front, it’ll still get you from point A to point B.

Now which of these do you suppose would be a good illustration of the life of a Christian?  Does God want the life of a Christian to look like the Starfighter on static display?  Does he want our lives just to look good, but actually go nowhere? Or is God’s purpose and plan for us to look more like the Lancaster?  Perhaps not the prettiest plane in the hangar, perhaps not the fastest, but at least it moves.  Does God just desire the status quo for us?  Does he want us to reach a plateau and then stall there?  Or is it his will that we continue moving forward, even if it is at a glacial pace?

Consider these Bible passages:

 “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”  2 Pet. 3:18

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…”  Eph. 4:15

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…”  1 Pet. 2:2

“We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”  2 Thess. 1:3

Clearly growth is, in fact, God’s will for us.

While some of those passages speak about growing in faith (i.e. trust), the thrust of most them is directed towards sanctification.  Sanctification, I remind you, is the process by which we grow to reflect the image of Christ.  It’s the process of growing in holiness according to God’s will.  The key word in that definition is growing.  Growing is never a static thing – it involves movement, progress, development.  This spiritual growth we call sanctification is God’s will for Christians who’ve been bought with the blood of Christ.  It’s his plan that we be moving forward.  It’s sometimes slow and oftentimes not a pretty sight.  It’s a whole lot more like the Lancaster than it is like the Starfighter.

The big question then becomes:  how do we keep on growing?  In brief, it starts with these four elements:  communicating with God in prayer, delighting in God’s Word, celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and enjoying fellowship with other believers.  Pursue those things and you’ll find yourself growing.   However, neglect just one of those and your spiritual life will begin to lose steam.

Here’s where the Lancaster/Starfighter illustration breaks down.  The opposite of a growing Christian is not really a stagnant Christian.  You’re either growing or you’re backsliding.  In reality, there’s always movement one direction or another.  Which is it for you at this moment?


You are a Disciple!

How we think of ourselves matters for how we live our lives.  For many of us, if asked our religion, we’d readily identify ourselves as Christians.  But we live in a world where that answer can sometimes mean nothing more than I was baptized in a church and I used to go to church at Christmas and Easter.  Saying you’re a Christian doesn’t necessarily mean you have a true faith in Jesus Christ and walk in his ways.

Interestingly, the word “Christian” is only used three times in the New Testament.  However, there’s another term used to describe a believer in Jesus Christ.  This term is used nearly three hundred times in Scripture:  “disciple.”  A disciple of Jesus Christ is a student, but far more than just in the intellectual sense.  A disciple in the biblical sense not only imbibes information from his teacher, but aims to follow his life.  Our Lord said it in Luke 6:40, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”  A disciple is like an apprentice.  Believers are disciples.

Yet it seems like Reformed people seldom if ever think of themselves as disciples.  They rarely refer to themselves as disciples.  Why is that?

Why Not “Disciples”?

The notion of Christians as disciples of Christ isn’t prominent in our Reformed confessions.  In its discussion of providence in article 13, the Belgic Confession refers to us as “pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which he teaches us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.”  The original 1561 French had “disciples de Christ.”  However, here discipleship is used mainly in the sense of taking data into our mind.  Something similar can be said for Lord’s Day 12 of the Heidelberg Catechism where Christ is described as “our chief Prophet and Teacher.”  He is our Teacher in the sense that he has “fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption.”

It might seem as if Reformed theology is allergic to this biblical idea.  Yet if you go to the Reformers, they don’t have a problem with it.  For example, in his commentaries on the gospels, John Calvin acknowledges that Christians are disciples of Christ.  He works with the idea – if you take the New Testament seriously, it’s impossible not to.  So, it’s not as if there is an objection in principle in historic Reformed theology.  It’s simply the case that, more often than not, they used the word “believer” or “Christian” instead.

It could be that the term “disciple” has received more attention because of the modern mission movement.  I’m thinking here especially of the importance of the Great Commission of Matt. 28:18-20 and its key imperative to “make disciples of all nations.”  In Reformation times, the Great Commission was recognized by some (like Martin Bucer) as being an abiding call for the church to do mission.  However, it wasn’t until the late 1700s that it rose to prominence.  In more recent times, it’s become common to hear missionaries speak of discipleship as a focal aspect of their work.  Missionaries taught many new Christians to think of themselves as disciples – not just at the beginning of their Christian walk, but throughout.

The Benefits of “Disciples”

Regardless of the history, the Bible describes true Christians as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It’d be beneficial for us to think of ourselves as such and to identify ourselves as such.  I’ll explain why.

Thinking of yourself as a disciple is beneficial because it reminds you that there’s a goal in your sanctification:  to be Christ-like.  No, you can’t be him like in every respect, yet there are certainly ways you can and should (cf. 1 Cor. 11:11).  For example, you want to be humble and follow his model of servanthood (John 13:15).

It’s beneficial to identify ourselves to others as disciples of Christ because the word “Christian” is increasingly losing its true significance.  People often claim to be Christians while disregarding huge swathes of what Christ teaches in the Bible.  Identifying yourself as a “disciple of Christ” indicates that you aim to follow him and what he teaches – you want to be like him.  You aim to abide in his Word  (John 8:31).

Two Clarifications

Let me end with a couple of clarifications.

First, it’s important to distinguish between the practice of discipleship (while not necessarily using the term) and consciously self-identifying as a disciple of Christ.  Reformed churches, if they’re faithful, are actually good at discipleship.  For example, catechism instruction for the youth of the church is a fantastic discipleship program, even if it’s not spoken of in those terms.  My focus above is on how we identify ourselves and how we regard ourselves.  Do we ever consciously think in terms of being disciples of our Lord Jesus?

Second, the idea of being a disciple of Christ doesn’t exhaust the Bible’s teaching on who we are as redeemed people.  The Bible’s teaching on our identity is multi-faceted.  For example, another important aspect of our identity, often overlooked and underemphasized, is our union with Christ.  This certainly isn’t to say that we should abandon the word “Christian” either.  If we understand it properly for ourselves and clarify it for others, there’s no reason to abandon it.   What I’m simply suggesting is that we give more prominence to discipleship than we have in the past – just remember that if you’ve got true faith in Jesus Christ, you are his disciple!