The Simple Secret to Change

The Master's Seminary Blog

The Simple Secret to Change

by Jerod Gilcher | May 05, 2020

Every generation has blind spots. The church is no exception. The church has always had rough edges and areas in need of reform. That being said, every generation of Christian has also had their strengths, and those strengths often serve as correctives to the blind spots of other generations.

One of the major blind spots of the twenty-first-century American church is its view of theology. For many in the church, theology is little more than fuel for controversy or a complicated, wet blanket for Christian sincerity and zeal. We live in an age when pastors are expected to be all things to all men—that is, except theologians.

Many churches and Christians today have filed for theological divorce—making clear distinctions between the rigors of the mind and the affections of the soul. Many sigh in exasperation: give me what my soul needs, not complicated doctrines! The reality is, however, theology was never intended for such abuse. This is our generation’s tragic blind spot.

But another generation has answers and cures for our doctrinal deficiencies—the generation of the Puritans. For these sixteenth and seventeeth-century Protestants, theology was not intellectual rough-housing, but the very soul of the Christian life. The Puritan Thomas Watson writes that doctrine “directs the whole course of Christianity, as the eye directs the body…. [It] is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.”1


The Puritans understood that reflection about God should produce affection for God


 

They knew that the head is meant to serve the heart. They were gripped by the reality that theology enjoyed in the soul would kindle worship and prayer. The Puritans were bent on making theology transformative for the soul.

And so, I wish to offer an example of a Puritan doing theology to answer a pressing question: how do I actually change and grow?

How does a Christian gain a practical, genuine holiness is the question of every age—a love-your-spouse and think-less-of-yourself kind of holiness. A holiness very much available to (and expected of) us in the here-and-now. Newly regenerated believers enter into the Christian life outmatched, overwhelmed, and often still somewhat enamored by sin. The war has begun. And thus there is an earnestness to the question: how do I practically increase in holiness?

This increasing in holiness is what the NT authors refer to as sanctification.

What is sanctification but the painful, slow carving of our lives into the image of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:29)? It is the slow, at times minute-by-minute, putting to death of sin by the power of Christ through the instrument of the word.

And yet, the question remains: How does one do this? In other words, what are the means God has given by which one may grow in holiness and victory over sin and temptation?


The grace of God works through very practical means,
which is why we refer to them as means of grace.


 

This is precisely where the Puritans can help us. I am going to let Henry Scougal (1650-1678) step in. In his soul-nourishing little book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Scougal reveals what is perhaps the deepest secret to sanctification and holiness. And what is that secret?

Love.

Follow Scougal’s logic. He writes:

Love is that powerful and prevalent passion by which all the faculties and inclinations of the soul are determined and on which both its perfection and happiness depend.

In other words, what you love the most determines the direction and happiness of your life.

He goes on:

The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love: he who loveth mean2 and sordid things doth thereby become base and vile; but a noble and well-placed affection doth advance and improve the spirit unto a conformity with the perfections with its loves.

Here now is the crux of his argument:


What you love most, you grow to resemble


 

If you love someone, you will likely begin to absorb some of their interests and passions into yourself. If you develop a passion for gambling, you should not be surprised to find in your life sprouts of greed and recklessness. You slowly, yet assuredly, resemble what you love. This means, then, if we love God most, we will begin to resemble His beauty and holiness.

So if we find deficiencies in our practical holiness, we have to ask ourself, What am I loving? Because I am growing to resemble something that is not God. Therefore, we are to love God more. So then the next question presents itself: how do I increase my affections for God? This is nearing the heart of what it really means to change. Answer: you must expose yourself to Him and His beauty. How? In the pages of Scripture. You must gaze upon the beauty of His perfections and character in the pages of Scripture.

Scougal put it this way:

The true way to improve and ennoble our souls is, by fixing our love on the divine perfections, that we may have them always before us, and derive an impression of them on ourselves…. He who, with a generous and holy ambition, hath raised his eyes toward that uncreated beauty and goodness, and fixed his affection there, is quite of another spirit, of a more excellent and heroic temper than the rest of the world, and cannot but infinitely disdain all mean and unworthy things; will not entertain any low or base thoughts which might disparage his high and noble pretentions.

Far too often, we think of theology as useless quibbles that will all sort themselves out in the end. But a theologian is one who thinks rigorous thoughts about God. We are all theologians. Some of us, as theologians, have just come to the conclusion (unconsciously) that my understanding of the character of God has little to do with my arguments with my wife. That could not be more wrong. Scougal teaches us that the secret to our day-in-day-out holiness is not to avoid thinking deeply about God, but to push ourselves deeper into who God is.


The more of God’s glory you see, the more you will love Him


 

And the more you love Him, the more you will begin to resemble your Father, or—to state it negatively—the more liberation you will experience from the sins that entangle you.

Conclusion

Scougal demonstrates that precise, robust theology is anything but a wet blanket to Christian zeal. Instead, all of the life-change that we long to see in ourselves and in others is produced through careful meditation and theological reflection. Here is but one small example of why we should not only read the Puritans, but emulate their enjoyment of theology. The church would be healthier for it.

Editor’s Note: For more on the intersection of theology and everyday life, see our free resource: Reformed Practical Theology

 

[1] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1983), 4.

[2] That is, low in dignity, worth, or value.

 

Rebuilding a Future Nehemiah Part IX

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PRAYING PART FOUR

5 And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments:

6 Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned.

7 We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.

8 Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:

9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.

10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.

11 O LORD, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.

Nehemiah 1:5-11

 

            Last time we began our look at Nehemiah’s actual prayer, with an eye towards its meeting our previous analysis of prayer.  We got through two topics last time, 1) Only God (that is the God of the Bible) is worthy of our prayers and 2) we must always acknowledge our humble state when we pray.

            Today we will explore the final two points of Nehemiah’s prayer, 1) His prayer was and our prayer must; be founded upon hope and 2) we must pray with faithful expectation. While at first glance these two may seem similar I hope to show their significant and important differences.

 

1)  Prayers must be founded upon hope  

Verse 8-9   Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:

9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.

            It may seem obvious but I think it may be helpful if I first define the word “HOPE”.  Hope has come to mean the following:

noun

1. A feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.

            Note the uncertainty of the matter, it is a feeling and desire

2. Grounds for believing that something good may happen.

            Again uncertainty; it may happen as in “he does see some hope for the future”

 

Now the classic or dare I say biblical definition is quite different. Although considered “Archaic” or out of fashion it is: a sense of trust or confident expectation

 

            You can see the modern translation is one of uncertainty a feeling without foundation as in wishful thinking. The biblical definition conveys conviction. It is in that manner Nehemiah prayed to God.

            Look with me what he prayed;

1) He implores God to remember

2) To remember His promise to the Israelites

3) That even though they had been disobedient and scattered abroad

4) If they repented He was powerful enough to gather them

5) Gather them not just anywhere but in Jerusalem

            Nehemiah points out that God had made certain promises and Nehemiah expected God to honor them. Should we expect anything less? I dare say no, for why pray to God if you do not trust Him to hear your prayers and more importantly be capable of fulfilling them.

            Our hope today is the same as Nehemiah’s. God has promised us just as He did the Israelites. Yet our Hope is founded upon something greater than that of those of Nehemiah’s time, our Hope is still in God but founded upon Christ.

1 Timothy 1:1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the commandment of God our Saviour, and Lord Jesus Christ, which is our hope;  I hope you see it is still God where our Hope lies, it is just founded upon Christ and His work at Calvary.   Psalm 130:5 reiterates this: I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.

            Our hope stands in stark contrast to that of the wicked (those without Christ):

 

Prov 10:28 The hope of the righteous shall be gladness: but the expectation of the wicked shall perish

            Our hope brings joy

Prov 11:7 When a wicked man dieth, his expectation shall perish: and the hope of unjust men perisheth.

            The unrighteous only hope is death

Prov 11:23 The desire of the righteous is only good: but the expectation of the wicked is wrath

            Believers desire (hope in) good things the sinner in evil

Prov 23:18 Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.

            Our hope is in a future that cannot be taken away          

 

2)  Pray with faithful expectation

10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.

11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.

 

You need not utterly despair even of those who for the present “turn again and rend you.” For if all your arguments and persuasives fail, there is yet another remedy left, and one that is frequently found effectual, when no other method avails. This is prayer. Therefore, whatsoever you desire or want, either for others or for your own soul, “Ask, and it shall be given you.” — JOHN WESLEY

 

 

Elijah prayed to God for rain and then sent his servant to see if there was any sign of it (1 Kings 18:41–46). He sent his servant seven times—Elijah had great expectation in God! Expectant prayer conquers discouragement and waits upon the Lord. James 1:6–7 tells us to ask with unwavering faith. http://www.joelbeeke.org/author/jrbeeke/

            We have discussed many times that one must pray in a manner that honors God and acknowledges His authority and control in all matters. Praying in such a manner that imposes your will upon God, (belief things will always work out as you planned), that just by asking God He will remove all troubles in your life or asking God for proof He is with you, are all recipes for prayer disaster.

            Everyone who prays does so with expectations at some level. These prayers are either founded on Worldly Expectations or Righteous Expectations. Righteous expectations start with:

            1) God’s sovereignty – Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

            2) Obedience – Joshua 1:7-9 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success

            3) Faith – Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

            4) Confidence1 John 5:14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.

            I like what R.C. Sproul says on the matter:

We can take comfort from the fact that God knows our hearts and hears our unspoken petitions more than the words that emanate from our lips. Whenever we are unable to express the deep feelings and emotions of our souls or when we are completely unclear about what it is for which we ought to be praying, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Romans 8:26-27 says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” When we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for in a given situation, the Holy Spirit assists us. There is reason to believe from the text that if we pray incorrectly, the Holy Spirit corrects the error in our prayers before he takes them before the Father, for verse 27 tells us that he “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”     Excerpt from Does Prayer Change Things?  by R.C. Sproul

            Let us look back on Nehemiah’s prayer a moment:

10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.

            By declaring himself and those in Jerusalem God’s redeemed Nehemiah has a righteous expectation of God hearing these prayers of His people.

11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.

            Humbly but with confidence Nehemiah asks God to look favorably upon his prayer. The end of which is so significant but many miss it.

I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.

            Note what Nehemiah asks for, mercy from the King of Persia. Nehemiah did not ask amiss. He pleaded with God to look favorably upon him not by building him up but by changing the heart of his captor. In essence Nehemiah prayed God use this pagan to bring about your will. There was no ego involved here, no vengeance against those who had oppressed God’s people, no self in this at all. Instead Nehemiah prayed for God to bring glory upon himself by using a pagan King to do God’s bidding. That my friend’s is a righteous prayer, it is a God centered prayer. Only with God centered prayers do we have a faithful expectation of being answered.

            I will close by citing part of an article by noted author and Pastor Derek Thomas. He expresses 4 points in the article and I will only quote the final.

How can we ensure that our prayers are God-centered? Consider the following five-step strategy:

1. Remind yourself that there is only one God in the universe, and that you are not Him.

2. Adoration comes first, before confession, thanksgiving, or supplication. Worship the Lord in your praying.

3. Read a psalm before you pray, and attempt to emulate what you find: a preoccupation with God in all His multifaceted nature. Find psalms of joy or grief, praise or lament, and note how the psalmist spends time with God, making Him the center of his thoughts and desires.

4. Learn to love God’s names so that saying and repeating them fills you with an inexpressible joy, a reminder of who He is and His covenant faithfulness to you in the gospel of His grace.

5. Learn to “wait” upon the Lord. Watch how the psalmist, “fainting” as he thinks of his own troubles, finds relief by deliberately focusing on the great things God has done:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds (Ps. 77:11–12). http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/god-centered-prayer/

 

Until next time may God watch over and protect you.

 

In HIS Service