What the Holy Spirit Does for Us

For many Christians, the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives is unclear. We have heard many stories of excess, of churches either ignoring the Spirit or focusing almost exclusively on him and his gifts. If we affirm the Trinity and want to understand and celebrate the work of the third Person, how should we proceed?

Romans 8 is not a bad place to start! It is full of references to the Holy Spirit.

But, because the chapter is so full of these references, we need an entry point. As we look closer, two of the references to the Holy Spirit stand out.

Twice in Romans 8 we are told that “the Spirit himself” does or accomplishes something. This phrase is emphatic, designed to make us look up from our coffee and take notice. The Spirit does not contract these jobs out to others, he does them himself, intimately involved in this work for us.

The Spirit Bears Witness

This phrase first occurs in verse 16.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15–17, emphasis mine)

When the Spirit “bears witness” with our spirits, he is reminding us—testifying to us—that we are children of God. Why would we need such reminding? Too often we default to a “spirit of slavery” which leads us to fear (Romans 8:15).

To know when we are sliding back into a spirit of slavery and away from the Spirit of adoption, we only need to consider the difference between slaves and children. When we take on a mindset as slaves, we have an overwhelming sense of duty and no reward. We don’t know any affection from God, only lists of things to accomplish or avoid. Our interaction with God feels distant and unapproving; we are without the rest and warmth of a beloved, adopted child.

If any of these descriptions fit you, there’s good news: The Holy Spirit wants to convince you of the truth! He himself aims to persuade your spirit that you really are a child and heir of God.

Note that this identity as a child of God is not just teddy bears and lollipops. We “suffer with [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

But there is glory coming for the children of God, and the Spirit will keep reminding us who we are until that day. How this happens is probably worthy of a much longer article, but here’s an initial thought. Some excellent ways to listen to the Spirit testifying to us about our status as children of God are to read the Bible (the Spirit-breathed word), to meditate on truths like this very passage (Romans 8), to pray (see below), and to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that emphasize the truth of our adoption.

The Spirit Intercedes

This wonderful phrase also appears in verse 26.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27, emphasis mine)

We have many weaknesses, including not knowing what to pray for. So the Holy Spirit prays for us.

The word “likewise” in verse 26 doesn’t refer to our weakness or to prayer, but to groaning. Paul has written that creation groans (Rom 8:22) and that we groan (Rom 8:23). The Spirit likewise groans.

Ours are the groans of waiting and longing for new-creation bodies in the midst of suffering. So when we “do not know what to pray for,” this isn’t just indecision or a lack of direction. We are often confused and wordless in our prayers because we have come to the end of our energy, effort, and speech. We trust God but don’t know what that might look like going forward. In our lament, we can give this over to God, because the Spirit is at work.

What difference does this make for us? Knowing that the Spirit prays, we can sit with God in prayer when we don’t have words. It is good to keep coming to him in our confusion and suffering—we don’t need any fancy language or feeling of holiness. We can trust that the Spirit will intercede for us (just as Jesus also does, see Romans 8:34) “according to the will of God.”

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When Conviction Comes to the People of God

“Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads” — Ezra 9:6

It’s unlikely that Ezra 9 tops anyone’s list of favorite chapters in the Bible. But with regard to grief over sin, few sections of Scripture are more instructive.

By way of background, Ezra is sent from Babylon to Jerusalem roughly 70 years after the first exiles made the journey. Ezra is both a priest and a scribe, and he will teach the law to the people in the rebuilt temple of God. Ezra 8 describes the travel to the holy city, then Ezra 9 opens with a bombshell.

The Faithlessness of the People

Ezra is told that many Israelites “have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (Ezra 9:1). They have married women from the surrounding nations who do not worship God. And it gets worse: “And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).

Ezra’s response is dramatic.

As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. (Ezra 9:3–4)

This is no run-of-the-mill sin. The identity and integrity of this new Jerusalem settlement is being compromised by these marriages. The issue is not mainly cultural or ethnic—it is about worship. Every spouse has enormous religious influence on their partner, and Israel’s history is peppered with unfaithfulness to God beginning with a marriage outside the faith.

Ezra grasps the severity of the situation, and he is undone. He is as torn up as his garment and facial hair.

While his ministry seems to have born fruit—witness those gathered with him who revere God’s word—the unearthing of sin this pervasive is devastating.

Communal Sin

Ezra sat appalled in his grief for a while. Then at the evening sacrifice (a public event), he fell on his knees to pray (Ezra 9:5).

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. (Ezra 9:6–7)

Ezra quickly turns from “I” and “my” to “we” and “our” in this prayer. In Ezra 10, there is a full accounting of those who violated the law against marrying foreign women. Ezra’s name doesn’t appear there, and we have no reason to think he was individually guilty of this sin. So, why does he identify with this transgression? Why is it our guilt?

In most of the Old and New Testaments, the people of any community belong to each other. This is especially true when God himself establishes and gathers that community. There are laws and expectations governing individual behavior, but the individualism of the modern West is completely absent.

So while Ezra might not be personally implicated in this scandal, these are his people and this is his community. Regarding this specific sin, we can imagine how friends and neighbors did not keep each other in the way of righteousness. The bulwark of day-to-day encouragement to pursue good and to flee evil had cracked and broken.

Sin in the Face of God’s Kindness

Ezra has a deep knowledge of history, related both to the sins of the people and the kindness of God. He thanks God for his favor to leave a remnant of Israel, to give them favor with the kings of Persia, and to help them reestablish the house of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:8–9). God has not forsaken them!

And yet, in the midst of God’s goodness, they have violated his specific commandments (Ezra 9:10–12). Though God has punished them less than they deserved, they have repeated their ancestors’ sins (Ezra 9:13–14).

Ezra knows the holiness of God in ways we might not. He knows that God could be so angry—justly angry—that he might wipe out this remnant of his people (Ezra 9:14). He concludes this way.

Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. (Ezra 9:15)

Pointing Forward

You might have noticed, this is not a cheery chapter of the Bible! No inspirational slogans to be found. And yet, as with all of Scripture, this chapter makes us look to Jesus.

God is grieved when we turn to worship anything but him. Ezra’s visceral sorrow reflects the size of the offense against the Lord. In this text, we see the people’s need for a savior—we are “before [God] in our guilt,” as no one “can stand before [God] because of this” (Ezra 9:15). The need for forgiveness and transformation is gigantic. And God has provided! Jesus is the one who was consumed in anger, he was the remnant that was eliminated in our place (Ezra 9:14).

Of course, conviction of sin happens again and again as we follow Jesus. And we need not fear conviction. Our sins are completely covered, and we are thoroughly forgiven as children of God. We will not be thrown out or disowned when our sin comes to light. This takes some getting used to, but our loving, holy Father leads the way.

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Rejoicing in the Truth (Even When It’s Taught By Someone Else)

I gasped when I saw the description of the podcast episode. An author was being interviewed about their soon-to-be-released book. Nothing remarkable there. But the subject of the book was a topic I had been thinking, teaching, and writing about for a couple of years.

That author stole my book idea!

Not really, of course. I was being dramatic. This author didn’t know me and likely had never caught a whiff of my writing. And it’s not like I had a book in the works. I hadn’t even written a book proposal. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write a book!

But learning about this other book seemed to slam shut a door of possibility.

A Writer’s Jealousy

This happened several years ago, and I’ve only recently started to interrogate the anger and frustration I felt. I was disproportionately downcast.

First, it’s absurd to think there couldn’t be multiple books on the same topic. But the anger I felt was (I think) born of jealousy. I wanted to be the source of wisdom on that particular topic. Any spotlight—such as it might have been—was too small to share. I wanted it all.

Beyond being massively self-centered, this was sin—pure, distilled, 200-proof. Wanting to be the only authority or source of knowledge about a topic is trying to put myself in the place of God. It’s idolatry. It’s the tower of Babel.

Finally, this desire was self-contradictory. If this project were successful, more people would be interested in this topic and would talk about it to others. Would I resent them if they didn’t trace the intellectual lineage back to me? Did I care about the topic at all, or was it just a tool I would have used to pursue my own glory?

Writing to Serve

Looking back on this incident has made me ask some fundamental questions, including Why do I write?

God gives gifts to his people so that they might serve others, and this is the spirit in which I want to write. I want to use any skill I have in communication or writing to instruct, help, encourage, and strengthen others. And all of it to the glory of God.

If I am to serve readers, wouldn’t I joyfully point them to others with sound, helpful ideas? Even, maybe especially, ideas which overlap with, correct, or build upon my own? Wouldn’t I resist all urges to develop in others a dependence on me? Wouldn’t I rejoice in the truth communicated in love, no matter from which keyboard it sprang?

I don’t know if the possessiveness I felt about “my” idea is one that is shared by other teachers or writers. But that possessive impulse is opposed to the goals of teaching, opposed to the gospel, and opposed to God.

If other writers have felt this pull and learned to deal with it, I’d love to hear those thoughts. Feel free to leave a comment below.


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Learning From the Sins of Abraham

Between the first promise of a son given to Abraham (Gen 12:2) and its fulfillment (Gen 21:2), Abraham had some rough patches. Like us, Abraham wavered, and we would not commend his every action to our children.

In particular, Abraham is recorded as calling Sarah his sister instead of his wife on two separate occasions (Gen 12:10–20 and Gen 20:1–18). In fact, Abraham may have demanded this of Sarah repeatedly (Gen 20:13).

This particular stumble may not seem very relatable to modern day Christians. Not many of us, I’d wager, are tempted to introduce our spouse as our sibling. And yet, I suspect we have more to learn from Abraham’s struggles than what first meets the eye.

How Do We Know This is Sin?

Some brief background: After the rescue of Lot and the destruction of Sodom, Abraham sojourned in Gerar, which was between Canaan and Egypt (Gen 20:1). Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister, and Abimelech (the local king) took her for his wife (Gen 20:2). God appeared to Abimelech in a dream and told him about Sarah, instructing him to return her to Abraham. If Abimelech did this, he would live; if not, he would die (Gen 20:7).

When I first studied this passage, I wondered why God didn’t rebuke Abraham. It’s a good Bible study question: How is the reader to know that what Abraham did was wrong?

I eventually realized that God did rebuke Abraham, but he did it through Abimelech (Gen 20:9). God called Abraham a prophet (Gen 20:7), and yet Abraham needed this Gentile king to play the role of prophet and bring the word of God to him. Abraham is an anti-prophet; that is the correction he needed.

The Nature of Abraham’s Sin

It’s too easy, across the distance of history, to judge Abraham for this bad behavior. Even if what he was saying was technically correct (Gen 20:12), he was intending to deceive. I believe the sophisticated word that theologians use to describe Abraham’s explanation is “weasly.”

But because Abraham and Abimelech have an extended conversation, we learn why Abraham acted the way he did (Gen 20:10–13). Further, we see some of the ways Abraham sinned and how we might easily fall into his well-worn footsteps.

Abraham believed God’s influence was limited. He said, “I did it because I thought, ‘There is no fear of God at all in this place.’” Abraham feared falling into the hands of those who didn’t fear God, and he assumed that was true of the people of Gerar. Of course, Abimelech ended up acting more like a God-fearer than Abraham!

Abraham believed God needed help to keep his promises. Abraham thought the people of Gerar would kill him because of Sarah (Gen 20:11). Yet God had promised Abraham an heir through Sarah (Gen 17:16) and this heir had not yet been conceived. This means that Abraham doubted that God could preserve his life without this deception. He had to protect himself because God might not do it.

Abraham doubted God’s goodness. We can hear some resentment and bitterness in the way Abraham recounts his calling: “And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house…” (Gen 20:13). Abraham is not remembering God’s provision, his protection, or his promises. He only recalls the inconvenience God caused him.

When we identify Abraham’s sins this way, I suspect many of us can see our tendency to repeat them. We often doubt God’s power and his extensive reign. We do not cling to his promises or trust him to keep his word. We wonder if God is as good as the Scriptures report.

The Answer is Resurrection

There are many places in the Bible which address these three doubts and teach us what is true. But there is one event which addresses all three.

All the Bible points to Jesus. And Jesus’s resurrection, in particular, is essential. It is the ultimate proof that God keeps his promises, that he is who he claims, and that we have a great hope.

The resurrection proves that Jesus reigns. Paul writes that the resurrection declared Jesus to be the Son of God in power (Romans 1:4). If we suspect that God is limited or that he cannot do the unexpected, the resurrection announces that Jesus is king with a megaphone.

The resurrection proves that God keeps his promises. Jesus taught many things and made many claims. Some of his boldest predictions were of his own suffering, death and resurrection. The truth of his resurrection, being the most audacious claim, verifies all of his teaching. (See 1 Cor 15:17 and Acts 13:16–41.)

The resurrection proves that God is good. In Acts 5:29–32, Peter explains that in his resurrection and ascension, God exalted Jesus as Leader and Savior, to give repentance and forgiveness to Israel. What mercy and goodness is captured in this! Further, Paul famously writes that those who believe will enjoy a resurrection like Jesus’s—in fact, Jesus’s resurrection is the first fruits of the resurrection of the faithful which is to come (1 Cor 15:20–23).

Prone to Unbelief

We are prone to doubt, to unbelief, to attributing ill motives to God. Any of our surface-level sins likely have a root in a heart which isn’t believing what is true.

Notice the forbearance and goodness of God! He faithfully stays with us in our unbelief. And he provides what we need to grow: his Spirit, his Word, and his people.

We believe, and we need God to help us in our unbelief. And this is exactly what he does.

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How Do We Obey the Gospel?

“Obey” is not one of the verbs we typically connect to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We talk about preaching the gospel, sharing the gospel, and believing the gospel. But we don’t hear much about obeying the gospel.

And yet, this must have been a phrase used in the early church, because it appears in at least two places in the Bible. In the context of talking about eternal punishment, Paul writes of “those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:8). In a similar manner, Peter refers to “those who do not obey the gospel of God” as being outside the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).

What did these apostles mean when they used this phrase?

News That Demands Action

The word “gospel” means “good news,” so on the surface this phrase doesn’t make much sense. After all, how can we obey news?

The gospel is not just any news. It is good news announced by God. Such news requires action.

The ministry of Jesus answers our question directly.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)

Because the kingdom is at hand—meaning that the king (Jesus) is here—repent and believe in the gospel. This is confirmed in other places in the New Testament.

Paul ended his sermon in Athens this way, including the command for all people to repent.

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31)

Paul also wrote this to the Romans, where he equates obeying and believing.

But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Romans 10:16)

Using these passages, we can take a swing at what it means to obey the gospel. Obeying the gospel means repenting of sin and believing the gospel.

This definition still demands an explanation “the gospel.” But, in an effort to keep the length of this post reasonable, I’ll leave that to another source.

We still have one question to answer. If the Bible speaks this way, why don’t we?

An Invitation or a Declaration (or Both)?

One reason we don’t talk about obeying the gospel is because we don’t view the message as authoritative. The good news about Jesus becomes one option among many. It might be our favorite option, but this mindset turns Christianity into one choice on a religious buffet. When we talk to our friends about the gospel, we’re hoping they’ll pick the potato salad like we did and sit at our table.

We have (rightly) understood the gospel to be an invitation, but we have not seen it as anything more.

To be clear, the gospel is an invitation! Jesus did not (and does not) coerce anyone into faith, and we won’t force or argue anyone into the church. Jesus was (and is) gentle and hospitable, welcoming all who call on his name.

But as we have seen, the gospel demands action. Turning away from Jesus is not just making a different, individual choice—it is disobeying and rejecting God. Our evangelistic efforts should emphasize both the call to obey and the invitation.

Ongoing Obedience to the Gospel

We need the gospel every hour of every day, not just at the beginning of our Christian lives. Therefore, the obligation to “obey the gospel” is not just for unbelievers—it’s for Christians too.

We get a hint of this in a letter from the apostle John, who was writing to Christians.

And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. (1 John 3:23)

And in this same letter, we are not only urged to believe in the name of Jesus, but also to confess our sins and repent (1 John 1:8–10).

We enter into faith by the grace of God, and we are sustained in faith by this same grace (Gal 3:1–6). This glorious grace of God helps us to repent and believe in the gospel and to invite others into this same obedience.

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God’s Immutability Secures Ten Thousand Promises

God’s promises to his people are “precious and very great” (2 Peter 1:4). Some of his promises are explicit in Scripture, and some are implied, but all of them are vital to everyone who needs hope in the world.

What is God?

The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives an answer to this most important question.

What is God? 

God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. (WSC, Question and Answer 4)

It is God’s unchangeableness—the theological term for this is his immutability—that has recently struck me as being precious. Until recently, God’s immutability mostly stood out to me because it was so unlike me. In so many of his attributes, but especially in this one, I could see how different God was than any human. We change all the time—in our preferences, moods, philosophy, morality, and ethical behavior. But God does not change! The way he is now is the way he always has been and always will be.

While this is still a bit outsized for my brain, I’ve been learning how God’s immutability is even greater than I previously thought.

Is God Immutable?

Before we dig into this feast, perhaps we should set the table. Is God actually immutable? Just because a catechism claims something about God does not make it so.

There is excellent Scriptural support for this doctrine.

For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. (Malachi 3:6)

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

These texts are all making slightly different points, and they should all be examined in context, but they all point to God’s immutability.

Additionally, there is a philosophical argument to make, one advanced by the ancient Greeks. Any change to God’s nature or character would imply some move from or into greater wholeness, goodness, or glory. But if God is perfect and complete, any such changes introduce a contradiction. Therefore, God cannot change. (I understand that I am oversimplifying. There are better sources than me to consult for a proper philosophical treatment.)

Implications of Immutability

If God is immutable, then this gives Christians some wonderful, implicit promises. For every aspect of God’s character and nature will exist in perfection forever.

God is holy and he will always be holy. God is sovereign and he will always be sovereign. God is faithful and he will always be faithful. God is patient and he will always be patient.

As I am growing to treasure God’s promises more, I’ve found his immutability to be a silver tray on which are served an abundance of promises. And all the promises of God find their “yes” in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20).

This God who is unchanging in his holiness and sovereignty and faithfulness and patience (and a thousand other qualities) is for me. The work of Jesus, planned out before time, is the evidence and the decisive act of this immutable God to rescue me.

God is merciful and he will always be merciful.

And that’s exactly the sort of sure promise we need.


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The Christian Life is a Waiting Life

Promises, by definition, require waiting.

If I approach my friend and promise him a coffee tomorrow, my friend needs to wait. His confidence in receiving that promised coffee will draw from the strength of our friendship and his understanding of my trustworthiness.

On the other hand, if I walk up to my friend and hand him a coffee, there’s no waiting required. My friend might need to find cream and sugar, or to express gratitude, but he does not need to wait. The gift is in his hands.

Christianity rests on promises from God to his people. Therefore, waiting is an essential part of life for those who follow Jesus.

Many Words for Waiting

So many words that are foundational to the Christian life imply waiting: patience, endurance, steadfastness, hope, faith, and trust. I’m sure the list could go on.

Waiting for God has been a central part of relating to him since the early pages of the Bible. Consider the call of Abram.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1–3)

After his commands, all of God’s verbs to Abram are in the future tense. A bit later in the story, Abram learns that God’s promises to him extend way past his lifetime. That’s serious waiting!

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” (Genesis 15:12–16)

But God’s call to wait extends far beyond Abraham. It is so central to a believer’s experience that we find it all over the Psalms.

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God. (Psalm 62:5–7)

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities. (Psalm 130:5–8)

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul includes waiting in his short summary of the Christian calling.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

Similarly, when Paul explains the way that God’s grace sanctifies God’s people, he writes that grace teaches us to wait.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11–13)

Once I started to think about waiting as a fundamental Christian task, I realized that it is everywhere. (See also: James 5:7 and 2 Peter 3:11–14.)

God is Patient

In learning to wait, we are becoming more like our patient God. We are more fully reflecting his image.

Notice all of the “waiting” words included in how God describes himself to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)

As the perfect image of his father, Jesus also was (and is) patient.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)

May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. (2 Thessalonians 3:5)

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15–16)

How to Wait

If our calling to wait is clear, it isn’t particularly easy. I don’t know many people who enjoy waiting or who would claim to be good at it!

That passage in Hebrews 12 (quoted above) provides great instruction on how to become more patient. We will be able to run the race with endurance by looking to Jesus, who undertook his task with endurance. Jesus serves not just as an example, but as the one who provides the power to change. Patience, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

One of the best ways we can grow in patience is to ponder what we are waiting for. We look forward to new heavens, a new earth, a new body, and an existence without the curse of sin. That is all glorious! And, best of all, we will be with God, face to face. God’s dwelling place will be with his people (Revelation 21:3).

Our ability to wait is strengthened by the magnitude of the glory for which we wait. I can stay in place far longer for peach pie than for a paper clip.

So as we meditate on heaven and on God himself, we strengthen our own weak, impatient hearts. We build up patience and endurance in the midst of hardship. And as we ponder God’s very precious promises, we grow our ability to do that most Christian of all things, to wait.

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Praying “God, Be With Us”

It is a recurring request at every prayer meeting I’ve attended. God, be with her. Lord, please be with him.

I internalized this prayer early in my Christian life and adopted it just like those around me. But as I grew in my experience and knowledge about God, I got bored with this prayer. I looked down on those who prayed this way. It sounded so generic and unimaginative. Can’t we do better? Can’t we ask God for deeper things than this? In my misguided pride, I thought those who prayed this way didn’t care enough to think of more specific ways to intercede for their friends.

Praying for God’s Presence

What I once considered ashes in my mouth has now become honey. I thought I could pray better, holier prayers, but now I realize there’s nothing more essential to our well-being. At our deepest, most elemental level, we desperately need God’s presence, because we need God himself.

We need God to be with us.

We were made in God’s image and designed to be with him—near him—forever. (This is the whole story of the Bible!) But as a result of rebellion, God drove Adam and Eve away from him, out of his presence. The story of redemption is the story of a journey back into the presence of God. We needed Jesus—Immanuel, God with us—to suffer and die in our place, that he might bring us to God.

God’s presence is the believer’s destiny (Revelation 21:3). It is our present reality. And it should be our longing and our comfort and our strength.

Lament and the Absence of God

Our longing for God’s presence is good and holy, and this helps us understand the raw outrage we see expressed in Scripture when God seems absent.

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:2)

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Psalm 13:1–2)

If you were a friend of these poets, what would you have prayed for them? Lord, be with them! Lord, let them know your presence with them!

God Has Promised

Not only is this prayer in harmony with the teaching of the Bible, God has promised to do this very thing for us. When he says “I will never leave you or forsake you,” we can count on it (Hebrews 13:5).

You might be wondering why we should pray for something God has promised to do. That’s a good question! However, we could easily turn that question around. How could we possibly pray for anything that God has not promised? As we reach toward the Lord with one hand, we should cling to the Bible with the other, pointing. You have promised; make it happen!

My Greatest Need

I cringe now when I think how arrogantly I judged those dear saints years ago. I wish I could go back to them and ask them to pray that God would be with me! This is what I need most of all. More than health or wisdom, more than safety or provisions—I need God to be with me, as he’s promised.


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Obeying the Good Law of Our Good God

Every house has its rules, and ours is no different.

For example, our children must brush their teeth twice a day. In earlier years, this rule prompted lots of tears and plenty of resentment. But as my kids have gotten older, they have (hopefully) started to understand our reasoning.

We don’t make our children brush their teeth just because we can. We enforce this rule because we love our children and want good things for them. We aim to teach them how to care for their bodies and how to love other people.

God the Law-giver

Many people think of God’s law as harsh, inflexible, and designed to eliminate all fun. In this understanding, God the law-giver is a cruel dictator and Jesus kindly delivers us from an outdated model of morality.

Perhaps the errors of this thinking are obvious. God is both holy and loving, he is both just and merciful; the nature and goals of the Father are not opposed to those of the Son.

Even when we correct that error, Christians often stumble in the ways we think about God’s commands. We tend to picture the law as a strait-jacket rather than an invitation to blessing.

Consider how James writes about the law.

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22–25)

God’s law is not only perfect, it is “the law of liberty.” The law frees us, and those who obey will be blessed.

Blessing for Obedience

As part of our reorientation to the law, we must revisit the word “blessing.” God’s promises of blessing in the Old Testament are frequently linked to obedience (Deuteronomy 28:1–14). We commonly think of blessing as either simply God’s approval or as a reward God has arbitrarily tied to following certain laws.

Because God is the Creator as well as the Law-giver, he has constructed the world so that the consequences of obeying him are good for us. It’s not just that God approves of our obedient actions. Rather, it is objectively better for us to obey than to disobey.

God calls us to obey him because it is good for us to submit to the true, good ruler of the world. But in addition, what God commands is actually good for our bodies, minds, and souls. His blessing for obedience is found both in his fatherly smile as well as the natural and supernatural consequences of doing what is good for us.

The Passions of the Flesh

Let’s turn to an example. When we commit the sin of gluttony, we eat to excess in the way that a drunkard drinks alcohol to excess. We seek comfort and a blissful haze through food. Our appetite controls us instead of the other way around.

God commands us not to be gluttons (Proverbs 23:19–21). We are blessed when we obey this part of God’s law not because we are following one of his arbitrary commands. He has our good in mind! God’s blessing for us in resisting gluttony comes in greater health, a better relationship with the created order, a measure of dominion over our appetites, and finding ultimate satisfaction in God instead of food.

Consider this from the other direction. Disobedience is not only offensive to God, it is bad for us. Hear the apostle Peter.

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

God doesn’t want us to entertain the passions of the flesh because they wage war against our souls! He’s not trying to kill our joy, he wants us to truly live!

Our Good King

Why should we obey God? He is our king, and we should do what our king commands.

But let’s ask the next question: Why does our king command what he commands? Because he is a good king and wants what is good for us!

The way of obedience is the way of blessing, because that’s how God set up and governs the world. This doesn’t make obedience automatic or easy, but it does shine the spotlight on our hearts as the battlefield. Part of the reason we disobey is because we don’t trust that God wants what is best for us. We believe the old, old lie that we know better than God, that he is withholding what is good.

Friends, Jesus came for this reason! He was crushed for our disobedience and our lie-chasing. And in the new life he gives us, we are free and empowered to think and act in accordance with what is true. Because we are beloved children of God, we are being transformed into people whose hearts align with God’s good intentions for our lives.

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Justice and Injustice at the Cross

The crucifixion of Jesus raises a multitude of questions, even for those who have been following the Savior for years. Why did Jesus die? What did he do to deserve death? How could God the Father allow his Son to be treated so terribly?

There was a lot happening on both the earthly and cosmic planes outside of Jerusalem centuries ago. But, as the Christian faith is a historic faith, it’s good for us to grapple with these historic events.

In this article we’ll consider one facet of the crucifixion that is profound and fundamental to our faith. The crucifixion of Jesus was one of the greatest simultaneous displays of justice and injustice in history.

Injustice at the Cross

To limit the length of this article, we’ll confine our observations to the Gospel of Luke. This one book provides plenty of evidence that Jesus’s crucifixion was a terrible injustice.

The plot to arrest Jesus was Satanic in its origins and depended on conspiracy and betrayal (Luke 22:3–6). Once Jesus was arrested, he was mocked and beaten (Luke 22:63).

When the council of elders met, they produced no credible evidence to convict Jesus (Luke 22:66–70). In his subsequent trials, it was more of the same—Pilate said, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). When Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, again there was no guilt to be seen (Luke 23:15). Pilate declared Jesus’s innocence three times (Luke 23:41422) and summed up his findings this way: “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Luke 23:15).

Jesus’s innocence was obvious to many involved in the crucifixion, even to those with no prior allegiance to him. One of the thieves who was crucified with him knew Jesus had “done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). And after Jesus died, the centurion said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47) The brutal, public execution of an obviously innocent man is a grave injustice.

The corruption went still deeper. Since Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, he planned to release him (Luke 23:16). But the crowd’s cries for Pilate to release a criminal named Barabbas grew so insistent that Pilate relented (Luke 23:23). The result? Pilate abandoned his responsibility to a mob and released a murderer and insurrectionist instead of the innocent man Jesus.

We read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s execution with anger and tears. He was treated so unfairly and with such cruelty.

But there was much more happening at the cross.

Justice at the Cross

If the cross was the site of such gross injustice, why are Christians so focused on it? Why do so many wear the symbol as jewelry?

While the human actors in the crucifixion drama were guilty of injustice, God the Father was also at work. He was accomplishing a great work of pardon and forgiveness.

Because God is perfectly righteous and just, he must do what is good and just and right at all times. Obedience must be blessed and disobedience must be cursed. All debts must be paid. To use the legal metaphor, every transgression results in an enormous fine, and we all have empty bank accounts.

How will God curse our disobedience and still bring us to himself? God accomplished this through the work of Jesus as our substitute. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sins of God’s people were put on Jesus at the cross, and, in the pattern of so many Old Testament sacrifices, Jesus offered himself. “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

This exchange—this transfer of our sin to Jesus—is perhaps seen most clearly in the prophecy of Isaiah.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

While the cross was a horrific example of human injustice, it was also a necessary work of God’s justice. He must not ignore sin, and he dealt with the sins of his people on the cross in his son. In this way, God was reconciling us to himself through Jesus Christ.

Even Better

We do not have time to fully explore the glory of the cross in this short article. We have touched on the deep mystery of how the crucifixion satisfied God’s justice and accomplished our forgiveness. The wonder of the gospel is that there’s even more!

When God credited our sin to Jesus, he also credited Jesus’s righteousness to us. Not only are our debts forgiven, but our bank accounts are overflowing. This topic is worthy of deep, sustained meditation (and certainly more explanation).

As a fitting way to close, let’s consider this beautiful summary from the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 56).

Q: What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?
A: I believe that God,
because of Christ’s satisfaction,
will no more remember my sins,
nor my sinful nature,
against which I have to struggle all my life,
but will graciously grant me
the righteousness of Christ,
that I may never come into condemnation.

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