September 15, 2019

The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity:

Let’s get started by reading the collect for today:

Almighty and merciful God,
of whose only gift it cometh
that thy faithful people
do unto thee true and laudable service:
Grant, we beseech thee,
that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life,
that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises;
through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Note: A few weeks ago we looked at the difficulty we can sometimes have with the assertion that it is only by God’s grace that we’re able to do good at all. So to read more about that, check out the reflections on Trinity 9. Today we have a different quagmire to explore…)

We’re going to focus a bit on the second half of today’s collect – the one that suggests a connection between faithful living and attaining the promise of heaven.

A biblical tension

There is a biblical tension between the eternal security of believers and warnings given to those same believers that they not fail to remain on the path that leads to heaven. It’s a tension that has incited many theological battles over the centuries. And each side has its own favourite “proof-texts.” In John 10:27-28, Jesus tells his disciples: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (NASB). But in Matthew 10:22 he says this: “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved.”

So there is a promise for the one who believes that there is eternal security in the hands of our Lord. But there is also a warning that it is necessary for us to endure to the end and not turn back. How do we reconcile this tension? I think this is a question that troubles us when someone we’d regarded as a sibling-believer turns aside from the path. Does it mean they were never really a true believer in the first place? Or does it mean that they’ll come back eventually? And does it mean that I, too, could fall away? When such questions arise, I find it helpful to keep in mind that no human being really knows the heart of another. It is only God who can truly tell the “wheat” from the “tares” – and it will be a mystery to us until the great gathering in of the harvest. Obsessing over this is, I feel, unhelpful. It belongs to God. Our job is to get on with our job…

(Note: If this question is one that worries you, and you’d like to read more on the topic, I recommend John Piper’s free online sermons and articles on “the perseverance of the saints.”)

If you want to get there…

Many years ago now I took a course on the epistle to the Hebrews. For those who don’t know, Hebrews is well-known for its alarming “warning” passages (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29). As we were embarking upon our study of this book, we were given this advice: Don’t start with polarized theological propositions and try to fit what you’re reading into one or the other. Instead, simply listen to what the author is trying to get across.

The professor summed up the message of these warning passages with this little phrase: “If you want to get there, you’ve got to go there.” That is, if heaven is our desired destination, then we must continue to move in that direction.

You see, the warning passages of scripture are not designed to cause us to live in perpetual anxiety about our eternal security. Nor are the eternal security passages designed to make us complacent about our faith. Both share the goal of urging us onwards towards the one who redeems us and towards a future of being with him forever in heaven.

A warning from Galatians

It’s helpful to begin with this understanding as we turn our attention to the readings for Trinity 13. First, we have a passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians which qualifies as a “warning.” He warns them that those whose lives are filled with “the works of the flesh” “shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Instead, he exhorts them to “walk in the spirit” so that the “fruit” of the spirit will be evident in their lives. The reading ends with a verse that underlines to whom they belong, Christ, who with the Holy Spirit makes it possible to put off their old way of living and put on this new one. Faithful Christian living is the “fruit,” the evidence that a true work of grace has occurred in the heart.

An exhortation from Luke’s Gospel

And finally, we turn our attention to the appointed Gospel reading: the parable of the good Samaritan. The parables are filled with “surprise” moments that should teach us – if nothing else – not to be too quick to make assumptions about the eternal standing of others. The hero of this story is a Samaritan man, someone who for reasons of race and religion many of the first hearers of the parable would not have wanted to be in the same room with. They might have thought they knew this man’s eternal destination. But they would have been wrong. And if, after hearing this story, such speculations continued, it would only show that they’d missed the point entirely.

The passage begins with the question of a religious lawyer addressed to Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” This man wanted assurance that he had eternal security. He knew that the law required him to love the Lord and to love his neighbour, but he wanted clarification. He wanted “to justify himself.” Just who got to be included in the category of “neighbour”? Then Jesus responded by telling the famous parable which turned the question on its head. Instead of focussing on who was worthy of being considered our “neighbour” he invited his hearers to consider who they were a neighbour towards.

The prayer, again

Once again we’re brought back to this: faith isn’t about a checklist, it’s about a relationship. It’s not about our merit, it’s about Christ’s merit. And it’s not about how much sin we can get away with, it’s about how much closer we can get to the one who makes it possible for us to be free from the clutches of sin. If you really want to get there, then keep going there, with God’s help.

With all this in mind, let’s return and pray today’s collect:

Almighty and merciful God,
of whose only gift it cometh
that thy faithful people
do unto thee true and laudable service:
Grant, we beseech thee,
that we may so faithfully serve thee in this life,
that we fail not finally to attain thy heavenly promises;
through the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

“Battling Unbelief: Defeating Sin with Superior Pleasure”
by John Piper


September 15, 2019

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