Forgive Just as God in Christ Also Has Forgiven You
And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
Last week I talked about what forgiveness is—what it looks like and what it’s not. I quoted Thomas Watson’s definition which included
- resisting revenge,
- not returning evil for evil,
- wishing them well,
- grieving at their calamities,
- praying for their welfare,
- seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
- and coming to their aid in distress.
How Do We Truly Forgive? Gospel-Flying
This week I’m asking, how can we do that? What gives us the freedom and the ability and the incentive and the power to forgive those who sin against us? Some of you have been wronged so deeply and hurt so badly that forgiving would be as great a miracle as flying.
But recall the little poem of John Bunyan:
Run, John, run, the law commands
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
Two wings, six feathers.
And that includes the “flying” of forgiveness. So I want God to show us our gospel wings this morning. Forgiving is a flying you can do in the power of the gospel. In fact six feathers are enough for this flight—three on one side and three on the other make two strong wings for gospel-flying—or gospel forgiving.
Two Wings, Six Feathers
I find all six feathers in these three verses (Ephesians 4:32–5:2),
And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you, and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.
There are two wings in this text for gospel-flying—just like a bird has two wings. Each wing has three feathers. All six feathers are things God the Father and God the Son have done for us without our help. They are all works of his sovereign grace. I am talking to Christian believers now. If you are not one yet, I hope you will listen and be drawn in. What I am describing here about gospel-flying (forgiving) is yours freely if you will lay down the weights of unbelief and trust Christ.
There are two wings. One wing with its three feathers is what Christ did for us before we even existed. And the other wing with its three feathers is what God did for us in our own lifetime. So if you are drawing the sermon today, you need to draw a bird with two big wings each having three feathers, and then write on each feather one of the things God has done so that we can fly with forgiveness to each other.
Wing #1: What God Did for Us Before We Existed
The first feather in this wing is this:
1. God Loved Us with a Special Saving Love
Ephesians 5:1, “Be imitators of God, as beloved children.” And verse 2: “Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you.”
The first feather in the wing of gospel-flying—gospel forgiving—is the unspeakable reality of being loved by God. But to feel the force of this, you need to know that this is not merely the general love that God has for all the world—the love that gives life and breath and food and rain and protection and family and job and many evidences of his truth and power and greatness. It is an amazing thing to be loved like that, and should cause us to turn to him in gratitude.
But if that is all you know of the love of God, your gospel wings will be weak. This text speaks of love like a Father has for a child and love that moves Christ to take our place in death. Now that is something more than the general love of God for the world. That is a saving love—a love that goes beyond the offer of the gospel and actually undertakes to save us effectively, infallibly. It does what needs to be done to get us forgiven and saved.
Here is the evidence for this: in Ephesians 1:4–5 Paul says that this love of God chose us for adoption as children of God.
[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love 5 he predestined us to adoption as sons.
So God has loved you with a love that is precious beyond words because it is a love that he gave you before you were born and that moved him to predestine you to be a child of God in holiness.
So the first feather in the wing of gospel forgiving is the feather of God’s special saving love—call it covenant love. It is not mere general love. It is love that fixed personally, particularly on you as an individual and chose you and pursued you and brought you to himself, because he means to have you. If you get gripped by being loved like that, you might only need one feather to fly.
The second feather is
2. Christ Gave Himself for Us as a Sacrifice
Ephesians 5:2b, “[Christ] gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.”
According to Ephesians 2:3 we were all by nature children of wrath. We all deserve to perish and be punished in hell for the sins of our thoughts and imaginations and attitudes and tongues and hands and whole bodies. But the covenant love of God for us moved him not only to choose us but to give his Son as a sacrifice in our place: “Christ gave himself up for us”—that is, in our place, so that we don’t have to perish. “He became a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
To feel the full force of this and to make the feather really strong for flying, we need to realize again that this is not merely a general thing Christ did the same for everybody. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” In other words Christ’s giving himself up to die as a substitute for the church is part of a covenant love that he has for his bride.
In love he chose you to be his bride and in love he lays down his life for you. You, individually, particularly, were in view as the goal of his loving and his dying.
Chuck Colson told the story (at the 1994 Ligonier Conference in Dallas, Texas) of a prison camp where 20 men came in from digging and lined their shovels up on the wall as they always did for the counting. When they were counted, the officer found only 19. He demanded that the one who didn’t bring his shovel step forward. None did. Then he threatened that if no one stepped forward, he would choose ten men at random and shoot them. A young man of about 19 stepped forward and was immediately taken a few paces away and shot as an example to the others.
But then as they were dismissing, the shovels were counted again and there were 20 after all. The officer had miscounted.
The difference between what that boy did for his friends and what Jesus did for you is that Jesus knew which ten men he was dying for and he knew that we were all unworthy. But he did it anyway, because he had a very special covenant love for you that is far above human love.
The first feather is that you have been loved with a special saving love. And the second feather is that Christ gave himself as a sacrifice to take your place so that you will never perish.
The third feather for gospel-flying (forgiving) is
3. God Was Satisfied with Christ’s Sacrifice
Ephesians 5:2b, “[Christ] gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
When Paul calls the death of Jesus for us a “fragrant aroma” to God he means that God was satisfied with what Christ did. He did not look down and say, “You can’t do that. You can’t die for others. Every person has to bear their own guilt. Don’t be so foolish to think you can take the curse and condemnation of another.” On the contrary, the Father looked down and (with tears in his eyes, I think) took tremendous pleasure in the honor that the Son gave to the Father in obeying his commission—the Father had sent him (John 3:16).
So Christ did not die in vain. God received his offering. It satisfied the Father’s justice. It removed God’s wrath and judgment.
Be ye glad, O be ye glad!
Every debt that you ever had,
Has been paid up in full by the blood of the Lamb,
Be ye glad, be ye glad, be ye glad.
Words and Music by Michael Kelly Blanchard
1980 Paragon Music Corp.
(ASCAP)/Gotz Music (ASCAP) ICS. ARR. UBP.
Of The Benson Company, Inc., Nashville, TN.
God was satisfied with the blood of Christ. That’s the third feather in the first wing of gospel-flying and forgiveness.
That’s the wing of God’s work before you were born:
- God loved you with special saving love;
- Christ gave himself for you as a sacrifice; and
- God was satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice. Your debt is paid.
Wing #2: What God Did for Us During Our Lifetime
The other wing for gospel-flying has three feathers in it also.
1. God Put Us in a Saving Relationship with Christ
God put you into a saving relationship with Christ, so that you are united to Christ like a vine is united to the branch.
Ephesians 4:32b, “Forgive each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
We are “in Christ.” That means we are in a relationship with Christ—we are united to Christ—in a way that makes us acceptable to God because he is acceptable to God. How did we get into this relationship? 1 Corinthians 1:30 says, “By [God’s] doing you are in Christ Jesus.” God awakened faith in our hearts and put us into a saving relationship with Jesus (cf. Ephesians 2:10, 13; Romans 16:17).
If he hadn’t done that, all his other work (loving us, giving his Son to die for us, being satisfied with the Son’s sacrifice) would have been in vain. But he did it. He is doing it all. His love will not be frustrated in pursuing you for himself. His personal, individual, particular love is moving him all the way. Nothing will stop him from saving you.
So the first feather in wing #2 for gospel-flying is God’s putting you into a relationship with Christ like a vine in a branch.
2. God Adopted Us and Made Us Rightful Children
The second feather for gospel-forgiving is that God adopted you into his family and made you a rightful child of God.
Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.”
In other words realize that when God united you to Christ, you became with Christ a child of God. And heir. This is what God had been aiming at all along. Ephesians 1:5 says that “God predestined us unto adoption.”
Some parents have children accidentally. And if they are cruel and heartless parents, they might even tell their children they didn’t want them. But God has no unwanted children. They are all planned—from eternity, with great expectation and joy. They are all pursued. Christ’s death is like an unspeakably high payment through heaven’s Micah Fund.1
The second wing of gospel-flying in wing #2 is the truth that you are loved not just in some random, general, impersonal way, but as a child of God that he sought out and adopted at great cost.
3. God Forgave Us for Our Sins
Finally the third feather in wing #2 for gospel-flying (forgiving) is that God forgave you for your sins.
Ephesians 4:32, “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.”
Before you were born (wing #1):
- God has loved you with a special, personal, saving love from all eternity.
- His Son gave his life for you to take the place of your judgment.
- God was satisfied by the substitute and sacrifice of the Son. The debt was paid.
Then after you were born (wing #2):
- God brought you to faith and put you in a saving relationship with Christ.
- God adopted you into his family as a child of his own.
- And God forgave all your sins and there is no condemnation.
These are the wings John Bunyan had in mind:
Run, John, run, the law commands
But gives us neither feet nor hands,
Far better news the gospel brings:
It bids us fly and gives us wings.
It bids us forgive—and give us gospel wings. If you believe in your heart that God has done all of this for you and in you, you will fly. You will forgive.
Closing Remarks from Charles Spurgeon
Charles Spurgeon tells how his heart was set on wing by the pardon of God:
My life was full of sorrow and wretchedness, believing that I was lost. But, oh, the blessed gospel of the God of grace came to me, and with it a sovereign word, “Deliver him!” And I who was but a minute before as wretched as a soul could be, could have danced for the very merriment of heart. And as the snow fell on my road home from the little house of prayer, I thought every snowflake talked with me and told of the pardon I had found, for I was white as the driven snow through the grace of God.2
But years later he added this:
To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven.3
It rises higher because it is gospel-flying. Spread your wings with me in these days at Bethlehem and let’s fly together.
As We Forgive Our Debtors What Does Forgiveness Look Like?
And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him. Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.] For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
Our Greatest Risk: Losing Heaven
The greatest risk we face as a church in these days is not that we may lose an organ, or that we may lose money, or that we may lose members, or that we may lose staff, or that we may lose reputation. The greatest risk is that we may lose heaven. Because one way to lose heaven is to hold fast to an unforgiving spirit and so prove that we have never been indwelt by the Spirit of Christ.
The Lord’s Prayer
Jesus said (in Matthew 6:9, 12), “Pray like this: ‘Our Father who art in heaven . . . forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.'” Then in verses 14–15 he explains why he taught us to pray this way: “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”
If we hold fast to an unforgiving spirit, we will not be forgiven by God. If we continue on in that way, then we will not go to heaven, because heaven is the dwelling place of forgiven people.
Then in Matthew 18 Jesus told a parable to illustrate this point. Peter asks the question in verse 21, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” And Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
And then he tells the parable about the king who forgave his servant a million dollar debt. The servant went out from the king and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a relatively small amount, refused his desperate pleas for mercy, and had him thrown in prison. When the king heard about it, he called for the servant and said (in vv. 32–35),
“You wicked servant, I forgave you all that debt because you entreated me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?” And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.
The point of Matthew 6:15 and 18:35 is that if we hold fast to an unforgiving spirit, we will be handed over to the tormentors. We will lose heaven, and gain hell.
The reason is not because we can earn heaven or merit heaven by forgiving others, but because holding fast to an unforgiving spirit proves that we do not trust Christ. If we trust him, we will not spurn his way of life. If we trust him, we will not be able to take forgiveness from his hand for our million dollar debt and withhold it from our ten dollar debtor.
Paul said in Ephesians 4:32, “Forgive each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” In other words God’s forgiveness is underneath ours and creates it and supports it. So that if we don’t give it to others—if we go on in an unforgiving spirit—what we show is that God is not there in our lives. We are not trusting him. And not trusting him will keep us out of heaven. And cause us to be handed over to the tormentors.
The Risk We Face and a Plan for the Coming Weeks
So the greatest risk we face as a church in these days is the risk of losing heaven. Because whichever way we look right now at Bethlehem, we are faced with the question of forgiveness. Is there forgiveness for Dean and Leah? Is there forgiveness for the staff and elders? Is there forgiveness for organ opponents and for organ supporters? Is there forgiveness for dozens of husbands and wives that have been more honest and vulnerable with each other these days than ever in their lives?
As I have thought about these things, what I have felt led to preach on for the next three Sundays is this: Today I want to try to answer the question what forgiveness looks like. How can you know when you are doing it? What does it include and what doesn’t it?
Then next Sunday—Palm Sunday—as Jesus moves into Jerusalem toward the cross, I want to talk about where we get the power to forgive. What is it like to be forgiven by God through Christ? How does that release forgiveness in us?
And then on Easter Sunday I want to take that great resurrection teaching from 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, we are still in our sins; but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, and the great unshakable vindication of our forgiveness from God.
I ask you to pray for me and all who will participate in worship these Sundays.
Today the question is: what is forgiveness? What does it look like? What isn’t it? We have heard from Jesus that it is essential. It is not icing on the cake of Christianity. If we don’t experience it and offer it to others, we will perish in our sin. So it is tremendously important to know what this is that is so essential to our eternal life.
Let me begin with a definition of forgiveness that we owe to each other. It comes from Thomas Watson about 300 years ago. He is commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we for give our debtors,” and asks,
Question: When do we forgive others?
Answer: When we strive against all thoughts of revenge; when we will not do our enemies mischief, but wish well to them, grieve at their calamities, pray for them, seek reconciliation with them, and show ourselves ready on all occasions to relieve them. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 581)
I think this is a very biblical definition of forgiveness. Each of its parts comes from a passage of Scripture.
- Resist thoughts of revenge: Romans 12:19, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
- Don’t seek to do them mischief: 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “See that no one repays another with evil for evil.
- Wish well to them: Luke 6:28, “Bless those who curse you.”
- Grieve at their calamities: Proverbs 24:17, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
- Pray for them: Matthew 5:44, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
- Seek reconciliation with them: Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”
- Be always willing to come to their relief: Exodus 23:4, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him.”
Here is forgiveness: when you feel that someone is your enemy or when you simply feel that you or someone you care about has been wronged, forgiveness means,
- resisting revenge,
- not returning evil for evil,
- wishing them well,
- grieving at their calamities,
- praying for their welfare,
- seeking reconciliation so far as it depends on you,
- and coming to their aid in distress.
All these point to a forgiving heart. And the heart is all important Jesus said in Matthew 18:35—”unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
What Forgiveness Is Not
But now notice what is not there in this definition. Notice what forgiveness is not.
1. Not the Absence of Anger at Sin
Forgiveness is not the absence of anger at sin. It is not feeling good about what was bad.
I was on the phone yesterday with a pastor from out of state who told me about a woman in his church who, he noticed after he came to the church, never came to communion. He probed and found that 15 years earlier she had been separated from her husband because he repeatedly beat her and sexually abused their children. She said that every time she came to communion she would remember what he had done and feel so angry at what it cost her children that she felt unworthy to take communion. This was over a decade later.
My friend said to her, You are not expected to feel good about what happened. Anger against sin and its horrible consequences is fitting up to a point. But you don’t need to hold on to that in a vindictive way that desires harm for your husband. You can hand it over to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23) again and again, and pray for the transformation of your husband. Forgiveness is not feeling good about horrible things. And he encouraged her to forgive him in this way, if she hadn’t, and to take communion as she handed her anger over to God and prayed for her husband.
2. Not the Absence of Serious Consequences for Sin
Forgiveness is not the absence of serious consequences for sin.
In other words, sending a person to jail does not mean you are unforgiving to him. My pastor friend has been part of putting two of his members in prison for sexual misconduct. Can you imagine the stresses on that congregation as they come to terms with what forgiveness is!
More Help from Watson
Thomas Watson was helpful to me again on this point. He asks,
Question: Is God angry with his pardoned ones?
Answer: Though a child of God, after pardon, may incur his fatherly displeasure, yet his judicial wrath is removed. Though he may lay on the rod, yet he has taken away the curse. Correction may befall the saints, but not destruction. (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity, p. 556)
This gives us a pointer to how we may at times have to discipline a child in the home, or a leader in the church, or a criminal in society. We may prescribe painful consequences in each case, and not have an unforgiving spirit.
The biblical evidence for this is found in numerous places.
One example, in the book of Hebrews. On the one hand the book teaches that all Christians are forgiven for their sins; but on the other hand it teaches that our heavenly Father disciplines us, sometimes severely. In Hebrews 8:12 it says, “I will be merciful to their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” Then in Hebrews 12:6, 10 it says,
Those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives . . . [Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.
So our sins are forgiven and forgotten in the sense that they no longer bring down the wrath of a judge, but not in the sense that they no longer bring down the painful spanking of a Father.
Another example is found in the life of king David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). He committed adultery and killed Uriah. Nathan the prophet came with stinging words to him in 2 Samuel 12:9,
Why have you despised the word of the Lord by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.
David is broken by this indictment and says (in verse 13), “I have sinned against the Lord.” To which Nathan responds on behalf of God, “The Lord also has taken away your sin; you shall not die.” But even though God had forgiven him—his sin is taken away—Nathan says (in verse 14), “However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” In fact Nathan says that the consequences of the sin will be even greater. Verses 10–13:
Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife . . . Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your companion, and he shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.
A third example is found in Numbers 14 where Joshua and Caleb tell the people of Israel that they can indeed go up and possess the promised land. The people are angry and want to stone them and go back to Egypt. God intervenes and says to Moses that he is about to wipe out the people and make him a nation greater and mightier than they (v. 12). But Moses pleads with God (in v. 19) for their forgiveness. “Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, just as Thou also hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
So the Lord responds (in v. 20), “I have pardoned them according to your word.” But this does not mean that there are no painful consequences for their disobedience. In verse 21–23 God says,
As I live, all the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers.
They were forgiven but the consequence of their sin was that they would not see the promised land.
Psalm 99:8 takes all these examples and sums them up like this: “O Lord our God, Thou didst answer them; Thou wast a forgiving God to them, and yet an avenger of their evil deeds.”
So forgiveness is not the absence of serious consequences for sin.
3. Forgiveness of an Unrepentant Person?
One last observation remains: forgiveness of an unrepentant person doesn’t look the same as forgiveness of a repentant person.
In fact I am not sure that in the Bible the term forgiveness is ever applied to an unrepentant person. Jesus said in Luke 17:3–4, “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” So there’s a sense in which full forgiveness is only possible in response to repentance.
But even when a person does not repent (cf. Matthew 18:17), we are commanded to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us and do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).
The difference is that when a person who wronged us does not repent with contrition and confession and conversion (turning from sin to righteousness), he cuts off the full work of forgiveness. We can still lay down our ill will; we can hand over our anger to God; we can seek to do him good; but we cannot carry through reconciliation or intimacy.
Thomas Watson said something very jolting:
We are not bound to trust an enemy; but we are bound to forgive him. (Body of Divinity, p. 581)
You can actually look someone in the face and say: I forgive you, but I don’t trust you. That is what the woman whose husband abused her children had to say.
But O how crucial is the heart here. What would make that an unforgiving thing to say is if you were thinking this: What’s more, I don’t care about ever trusting you again; and I won’t accept any of your efforts to try to establish trust again; in fact, I hope nobody ever trusts you again, and I don’t care if your life is totally ruined. That is not a forgiving spirit. And our souls would be in danger.
The risk is high at Bethlehem right now. We all have people we need to forgive. We need very much to see Jesus and feel what it means to be forgiven our ten million dollar debt. I pray that the Lord will reveal that to us this week, and especially next Sunday.
“Forgive Us Our Debts as We Forgive Our Debtors” A Meditation on Matthew 6:12
Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your father who is in heaven will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive you your trespasses.
Mark 11:25-26 “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your father who is in heaven forgive.”
Matthew 18:34-35 “And the master was angry and he handed him over to the jailers until he pay back all he owed. So will my father who is in heaven also do to you if each one of you does not forgive his brother from your hearts.”
There are no unforgiving people in the kingdom of God. But then who can be saved? With men it is impossible, but not with God (Mark 10:27). But then does God make us perfect in this life so that we never fail to forgive? Does he bring us to the point immediately where our response to every personal insult or injury is never, not for a moment, resentment, anger, vengeance or self-pity?
Getting to the Heart of Unforgiveness
To answer this let us ask: Is forgiveness a unique virtue among all the qualities Jesus demanded in his disciples? That is, is it alone the quality on which the father’s forgiveness depends? No! All of Jesus’ commands must be met lest we perish. It is not just an unforgiving spirit which cuts a person off from God; it is sin. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, or your father will not forgive you your trespasses (Matthew 5:29). If you call your brother a fool, your father will not forgive your trespasses (Matthew 5:22). If you do not love your enemy, your father in heaven will not forgive your trespasses (Matthew 5:44). Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble will not be forgiven by my father (Matthew 18:6). Over every command of Jesus stands the saying, “If you do not do this, you will not enter the kingdom,” which is the same as saying the father will not forgive you (Matthew 7:21-23).
So the command, “Forgive that you might be forgiven,” is just one instance of the whole ethical demand of Jesus. It is not the exception; it is the rule. As Jesus says in John 8:34ff, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. The slave does not continue in the house forever.” Or as John says in his first letter, “You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins. No one who sins has either seen him or known him… Everyone who is born of God does not sin because his seed remains in him, and he is not able to sin because he is born of God” (1 John 3:6, 9; cf 3:14, 16; 4:7, 8, 12, 16). Or as Paul says, “The works of the flesh are plain…enmity, strife, jealousy, anger…those who do such things shall not enter the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21, cf. 1 Corinthians 6:10; Romans 8:13). Or as the writer to the Hebrews says, “Pursue peace with all men and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14 cf. 10:26ff; 6:4ff). Therefore, when Jesus says, “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive you,” he is saying nothing different from what the whole New Testament affirms.
Isn’t There a Contradiction?
Is it a demand for sinless perfection without which we will not be saved? If it were, then what sense would the petition, “Forgive us our debts,” have? Or what sense would the admonition to confess our sins have (1 John 1:9)? If a disciple were by definition one who never committed sin, then why would Jesus instruct him to pray, “Forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4)?
What “debts” or “sins” did Jesus imply that we would keep on committing? Did he mean all kinds of sins except the failure to forgive? No, he does not classify sins like that. But then one of the “debts” for which we should ask forgiveness is our unforgiving spirit, i.e., our failure to forgive. But notice what happens if we substitute “our failure to forgive” for “debts” in the Lord’s prayer. It would go like this: “Forgive us our failure to forgive (a specific debt) as we forgive our debtors.” But this seems to be a contradiction: “as we forgive our debtors” implies that we do forgive; but our petition, “Forgive us our failure to forgive” implies that we do not forgive. The solution to this apparent contradiction is to recognize that the clause, “as we forgive our debtors,” does not mean that the disciple never has moments when an unforgiving spirit has the ascendancy. If Jesus said that we should pray that our debts be forgiven, and if one of those debts is a failure to forgive, then the phrase “as we forgive our debtors” cannot be absolutized to imply that only a perfectly forgiving spirit can receive forgiveness from God.
When Jesus told his disciples to pray for forgiveness as they forgive others did he not, then, mean that I should pray something like this: “Father, forgive me for my failure today to forgive Tom. I was irritable and wrapped up in myself and when he said what he said I flew off the handle at him and held a grudge all day, savoring in my mind how I might show him up, and keeping count of all the times he wronged me. My conscience smote me this afternoon when you reminded me of your constant mercy toward me. So I went to him and apologized (Mark 11:25). I do not desire to hold the grudge any longer. You have rid me of my selfish indignation and so I pray you will forgive my failure to forgive Tom today and let me not fall into that temptation again.”
In other words, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” does not mean that we are lost if the old unforgiving spirit raises its head just once. It means: No one who cherishes a grudge against someone dare approach God in search of mercy. God treats us in accordance with the belief of our heart: if we believe it is good and beautiful to harbor resentments and tabulate wrongs done against us, then God will recognize that our plea for forgiveness is sheer hypocrisy—for we will be asking him to do what we believe to be bad. It is a dreadful thing to try to make God your patsy by asking him to act in a way that you, as your action shows, esteem very lowly.
Forgiveness is not a work by which we earn God’s forgiveness. It flows from a heart satisfied with the mercy of God and rejoicing in the cancellation of our own ten million dollar debt (Matthew 18:24). With man it is impossible, but not with God. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). But the plant which endures does so because it is planted by God (Matthew 15:13). No one can boast in his self-wrought merit before God (Luke 17:10); and it is not the rigorous following of rules but a poor spirit and a total reliance on God’s mercy which attains a standing before God (Luke 18:9-14; Matthew 5:3).
But one thing is certain: the person who has, through mercy, been born from above cannot be the same any more. He cannot go on sinning as before since “the seed of God” is in him (1 John 3:9). He walks not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4), for he is led by the Spirit (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18). God is at work in him to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). When we “forgive from the heart,” it is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). We have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us (Galatians 5:20). We are a new creation (Galatians 6:15); and the mark of our newness is not yet perfection, but a persistent inclination to forgive, a hasty repair of our failure to do so and a steady petition for God to disregard the sin that we are abandoning.
Learning to Pray in the Spirit and the Word… Scripture: Jude 1:17–25
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, 18 that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” 19 These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit. 20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life. 22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh. 24 Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
Stoking the Prayer Fire
We take a week each year to focus on prayer because prayer is the breath of the Christian life and because almost nothing decays so fast in the fallen human heart as the desire to pray. In other words, nothing is more vital than prayer in Christian existence, and few things are more vulnerable to neglect.
So we must come back to it again and again and stoke the fire. So here we are coming back at the beginning of the year 2001. And I pray that the Lord will use these messages and the books and the prayer meetings and the prayers of those who carry this burden to stir you up again to devote yourselves to prayer –
- prayer in your private time with God each day over the Word,
- prayer with your family at meals and in devotions,
- prayer with husbands and wives,
- prayer with roommates and friends,
- prayer in small groups,
- prayer in the stated times each morning here at Bethlehem as listed in the worship folder,
- prayer in worship services,
- and all the hundreds of prayers that ascend during the day as you walk by the Spirit and breathe out your dependence on God and he breathes into you the grace of faith and life and love and joy and obedience and witness.
In his great mercy to me, God meets me every year at this time to stir me up to make new resolves and to be encouraged to encourage you. One of the things he did for this year is bring into my hands last week a little book by Bruce Wilkinson, the president of Walk Thru the Bible, The Prayer of Jabez. The book caught my attention partly because it was inspired about thirty years ago by a sermon preached by Richard Seume – the pastor I sat under at Wheaton Bible Church thirty-three years ago. I recall how Pastor Seume would take the most obscure texts and find in them diamonds to preach on.
He did this once in the hearing of Bruce Wilkinson and it changed his life. The text was 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, in the middle of all those genealogies. This is the first and last time we ever hear of Jabez. He is a virtual nobody in Biblical history. But if you were going to get only a two-verse biography, what would you want written of you? Let it be this.
Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother named him Jabez saying, “Because I bore him with pain.” Now Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my border, and that Your hand might be with me, and that You would keep me from harm that it may not pain me!” And God granted him what he requested.
That’s all. He appears. He prays a great, expansive prayer. And God grants his prayer. And that’s all. Bruce Wilkinson says,
Pulling a chair up to the yellow counter I bent over my Bible, and reading the prayer over and over, I searched with all my heart for the future God had for someone as ordinary as I.
The next morning, I prayed Jabez’s prayer word for word.
And the next.
And the next.
Thirty years later, I haven’t stopped.
If you ask me what sentence – other than my prayer for salvation – has revolutionized my life and ministry the most, I would tell you that it was the cry of a gimper named Jabez who is still remembered not for what he did, but for what he prayed, and for what happened next. (The Prayer of Jabez, Multnomah Publishers, 2000, p. 11)
Your Life Prayer?
What are you praying over and over to God in the name of Jesus that he will make of your life? What are you asking God to make of you and your time on this earth? What part of God’s purpose revealed in the Bible has captured your imagination and become a passion for you so that you take hold of God day after day and ask him to use you in it?
I paused when I read this story from Bruce Wilkinson and asked myself, What prayer have I prayed most often over the last thirty years? What thing do I want God to do so much that it is there in my prayers every day? I suppose for many of us the answer to that would be prayers that our children be saved and walk in truth, and that our marriages be strong.
But what about the bigger picture? God is the God of the whole earth and all the nations and all of history and all of life and culture and all the universe from one end of the galaxies to the other. Each of us was created to have a significant place in that great scheme. What is it? What do you pray for day in and day out about how you fit into that?
I think the prayer I have probably prayed more often than any other at that level is, “Father, cause your name to be hallowed in my life and through my life.” “Hallowed be thy name.” “Make my life a means of people coming to reverence your name and love your name and praise and honor and cherish and treasure and glorify your name.” I can recall during my seminary days ending my morning jogging in Pasadena by sprinting east on Orange Grove Boulevard as the sun was coming up, and praying with my arms in the air and my heart pounding, “God only give me life – only keep my heart beating – if it will cause people to hallow your name. Let your name be hallowed by my life!”
So this Sunday and next Sunday I want to stir you up to pray that your life, your family, your church would count for something great for Christ and his kingdom. I hope you will read about prayer. I hope you will think about prayer. I hope you will pray about prayer. And I hope you will plan about prayer. So many best things are squeezed out by merely good things because we don’t plan a time and a way to do them. So read and think and pray and plan – and then pray this year as you never have before. Pick a prayer meeting and make it a priority. Pick a private place and make it as sacredly sure as your favorite meal.
Prayer, A Means of Grace
Now to make the Word of God the support and power of this exhortation, I want us to look this morning at our text, Jude 20-21, “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting anxiously for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to eternal life.”
Thomas Manton, the Puritan, has twenty-three pages of commentary on these two verses. Every phrase is worthy of a sermon. But I would like to make only one observation from these verses this morning, and then return to them next week. Today’s observation is that prayer is a means of God’s grace designed to keep us from falling into disbelief, and to bring us safely to eternal life.
If the term “means of grace” is not part of your spiritual vocabulary, I would like to add it this morning, because I don’t know of a better way of describing how God’s decisive work relates to our dependent work. Or, to be specific in this case: how God’s sovereign governing of all things relates to human prayer. If God runs the world according to his own holy and inscrutable wisdom, why pray for him to do one thing and not another thing?
Consider the context of this word about prayer in verse 20. There it says that we are to “pray in the Holy Spirit.” “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God . . .” What you can see from this immediate context is that building yourselves up on the foundation of faith and praying in the Holy Spirit are the way Jude wants them to keep themselves in the love of God. “By building yourselves up and praying, keep yourselves in the love of God.”
Now keeping Christians safe for eternal life is what this book is really about. That is, this little letter from Jude is about perseverance – it’s about how to fight the good fight and take hold of eternal life (1 Timothy 6:12), and how to finish the race and keep the faith (1 Timothy 4:8), and how to endure to the end and so be saved (Mark 13:13). And verses 20-21 say: This perseverance is something you do. You build yourself and others up on the foundation of faith. You pray. You keep yourselves in the love of God.
But that is only part of the context. At the beginning and the end of this little book, there is another truth, a deeper truth about perseverance – or about “keeping.” Look at verse 1: “Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” Notice the word, “kept.” Here is the idea of perseverance again, only here at the beginning it is not the Christian who is keeping himself. He is being kept.
Some translations say “by Jesus Christ.” Some say, “for Jesus Christ.” The original Greek can mean the one as easily as the other. Both are probably true in Jude’s mind. But let me show you why the NASB chose to say “for Jesus Christ.” Evidently the translators thought that the “keeper” behind the verb, “kept,” in verse 1 is not the Christian himself and not Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but someone else. Who?
Who Is the Keeper?
Sometimes you need the end of the story to know the full meaning of the beginning. So look at the famous doxology in verses 24-25. “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy. . .” Now we have our perseverance attributed not to ourselves, but to someone else. Who is this? The next verse makes it crystal clear. Verse 25: “. . . to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.”
So the one who is able to keep you from stumbling and to make sure you arrive in the presence of God blameless and with great joy is “God our Savior through Jesus Christ.” So God the Father is the ultimate keeper and he acts “through Jesus Christ” because the death of Jesus is the purchase price and foundation of all grace, including the grace of keeping us – that is, the grace of perseverance.
So back to verse 1. “Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” The main thing to see here is that it is not we who are keeping in verse 1 or verse 24. It is God the Father through Jesus Christ. God called us, God sets his saving love upon us, and God keeps us. So now we have two truths about our being kept safe for eternal life as Christians – just as we saw last week from Romans 6:22-23. There we saw that sanctification was something we do. Here we see that our perseverance to eternal life is God’s doing (we are “kept,” verse 1; God is able to keep us, verse 24; and it is our doing – verse 21, keep yourselves in the love of God).
Over and over in the Bible we see this: God’s action is decisive; our action is dependent. And both actions are essential. So I urge you again to resist the mindset that cynically says, “If God is the decisive keeper of my soul for eternal life (verses 1, 24), then I don’t need to ‘keep myself in the love of God'” (verse 20). That would be like saying, since God is the decisive giver of life, then I don’t need to breathe.
No. No. Breathing is the means that God uses to sustain life. So the command to breathe is the command to fall in with the purposes and patterns of God to give and sustain life. This is what I mean by the term, “means of grace.” “Grace” is the free keeping-work of God to sustain our spiritual life that leads to everlasting joy. The “means of grace” is our “keeping ourselves in the love of God.” God’s “keeping” inspires and sustains our “keeping.” His keeping is decisive and our keeping is dependent on his.
The Life Breath of Prayer
Which brings us now to prayer. Prayer is the breathing of the Christian life.
Notice in verses 20-21 that prayer is one of the ways we are to keep ourselves in the love of God. “But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.” Shortened down, it says, “By praying, keep yourselves in the love of God.” So the effort to “keep ourselves in the love of God” (verse 21 is the means God uses to keep us safe for eternal life. And praying is one way we keep ourselves in the love of God (“praying, keep yourselves in the love of God”). Therefore, prayer is a crucial and essential means of grace that God ordains to keep us safe for eternal life.
So don’t ever think, Since God is the decisive keeper of my soul, and I am eternally secure (Which is true! Romans 8:30; John 10:29; Philippians 1:6), therefore I don’t need to be vigilant to pray for perseverance. That would be like saying, Since God is the decisive giver and sustainer of life, I don’t need to breathe. I can spend as much time underwater as above water and it won’t make any difference. Yes it will. God’s means of sustaining life is not only the gift of life, but the gift of breath to sustain it (Acts 17:25).
So don’t think, Since God is the decisive keeper of my soul, I can spend as much time in prayerless sinning as in prayerful serving, and it won’t make any difference. Yes it will. God’s means of keeping your soul is not only the gift of life, but also the gift of prayer to sustain it. If you don’t receive and use the gift of life-sustaining prayer, there is little reason to think that you receive and cherish the gift of life. If you don’t treasure the gift of breath, you don’t cherish the gift of life.
Prayer is utterly crucial to your life. Jesus said in Luke 21:36, “Keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Pray that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man at the Last Day. Prayer is a means of persevering to the end in faith and standing with joy before the King of the universe.
Now the question is: What does it mean to pray in the Holy Spirit? And practically, how do we do that from day to day in 2001? That is what I will take up next week and relate it to the use of the Word of God and the Fighter Verse challenge in particular.
But in the meantime, consider whether your life of prayer this past year has reflected the seriousness of these verses and what changes you might make. Take the challenge of Bruce Wilkinson and be like Jabez. Lay hold on God for some great biblical vision for your life on this earth and don’t let go until you have it from his merciful hand.
Why Pray in the Spirit?
The focus last week and this week is on the phrase in verse 20, “Praying in the Holy Spirit.” Last week we answered the why question: Why pray in the Holy Spirit? We got the answer from the relationship between the participle “praying” and the main verb which follows it (verse 21a), “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” “Praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.” In other words, one essential way to keep yourself in the love of God is to pray in the Spirit. By praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.
We called prayer a “means of divine grace.” Why did we use that term? Because keeping ourselves in the love of God is not something we can do on our own. God is the decisive keeper of our souls. If God doesn’t keep us, we will not persevere in faith; we will perish. We saw that in verse 1 and verse 24. Verse 1b: “To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” Notice the passive verb: We are “kept,” not “we keep.” We are kept by someone else, not by ourselves.
By whom? We saw the answer in verse 24: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling . . .” Who is able to do that for us? The answer is in the next verse (verse 25): “. . . to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So God the Father is our ultimate keeper through Jesus Christ.
Which means that our task of keeping ourselves is dependent on God’s decisive keeping. That is why prayer is mentioned as a crucial way of keeping ourselves in the love of God. God is the decisive keeper. How then do we keep ourselves, if God is the decisive keeper? Answer: we ask God to keep us. That is, we pray. Praying is the “means of grace” that God uses to keep us in his love. God is the decisive keeper and he uses means to keep us. One of the means he uses is our prayers, so we are dependent keepers. And we show our dependence mainly by praying for him to do his decisive work.
We saw an example this kind of praying in Luke 21:36. Jesus says, “But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Do you want to be kept from the destructive effects of the last days? Yes? Well, Jesus says, “Pray that you may be able . . . to stand before the Son of Man,” when he comes.
Another example of praying for God to keep us comes from Jesus’ example of how he prayed for Peter in Luke 22:32. After saying that Peter would deny him three times, Jesus says, “But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”This is the way we should pray for ourselves and each other. It is God the Father who decisively keeps, but we have a dependent role to play: We pray. And we pray like Jesus: O Father, don’t let my faith fail; keep me. Prayer is the means of grace that God uses to keep us secure and cause us to persevere to the end in faith.
Now today the question is not, Why? But, What? And How? What is “praying in the Holy Spirit”? And, How do we pray in the Spirit?
The best brief statement I have found of what it means to pray in the Holy Spirit goes like this: It means “so to pray that the Holy Spirit is the moving and guiding power.” The key words there are “moving” and “guiding.” In other words, when you pray in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God is “moving” you to pray. That is, he is the one who motivates and enables and energizes your prayer. And when you pray in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God is “guiding” how you pray and what you pray for. So, to pray in the Holy Spirit is to be moved and guided by the Holy Spirit in prayer. We pray by his power and according to his direction.
The Power of the Spirit
Let’s see where this interpretation of praying in the Holy Spirit comes from in the Bible. The first thing to notice is the very close parallel passage in Ephesians 6:18, where Paul says, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit.” The reason this is important is that it shows that “praying in the Spirit” is not a special form of prayer – like speaking in tongues. We can tell this is so because Paul says in Ephesians 6:18 that we should pray “at all times” in the Spirit. In other words, all prayer should be “in the Spirit.” Praying in the Holy Spirit is not one form among several. It is the way all prayer is to be offered.
The second thing to see is the parallel in Romans 8:26 where Paul says, “The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Here it is plain that one thing the Holy Spirit does for us is help our weakness when we need to pray but can’t the way we should. So it is natural to take “praying in the Holy Spirit” to mean praying with the help of the Holy Spirit – with the strength and enablement of the Spirit to make up for our weakness.
A third parallel would be Romans 8:15-16 where Paul says, “You have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” The point here is that the Spirit of God helps us have assurance that we are children of God by causing us to cry out from the heart (to pray!), “Abba, Father.” In other words, the Spirit moves our prayers. He motivates, enables and energizes our prayers. That’s a key part of what “praying in the Holy Spirit” means.
The Guidance of the Spirit
The other part of what it means to pray in the Holy Spirit is that when we do so, our prayers are not only “moved” by the Spirit, but also “guided” by the Spirit. This is no surprise, because if the Holy Spirit is prompting and enabling and energizing our prayers, it would natural to think that he does so in a way that accords with his nature and his Word. We would not want to say, The Spirit moves our prayers, but they are not according to God’s will. If the Spirit is moving us to pray, then he would move us according to his will and Word.
So praying in the Holy Spirit would mean not only experiencing the power of the Spirit to help us pray when we are weak, but also experiencing the guidance of the Spirit to help us when we are foolish or confused or selfish. For example, James 4:3 says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” That would not be praying “in the Holy Spirit.” That would be praying “in the flesh” or in your own sinful nature.
How Do I Pray in the Holy Spirit?
So now the question is the practical one: How do you pray in the Holy Spirit? Don’t fail to see how utterly unusual it is to be told to do something by the power and guidance of another. It is God telling me to do it – pray! And yet telling me that it is a work of the Holy Spirit when I do it. It is just like other things in the Christian life: Galatians 5:16, “Walk by the Spirit.” Romans 8:13, “Put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:3, “Say Jesus is Lord by the Spirit.” Philippians 3:3, “Worship by the Spirit.” In all these things we are supposed to do something. But we are to do them in a way that it is the Spirit who is doing them through us.
This is the way human life is, since God is sovereign and we are responsible. We act. We are responsible to act. But God is the decisive actor. Our action is dependent. So when we are told to “walk” (Galatians 5:16), or fight sin (Romans 8:16), or confess the Lordship of Jesus (1 Corinthians 12:3), or worship (Philippians 3:3), or pray (Jude 1:20), we are told to do it “in the Holy Spirit.”You do it so that it is the Holy Spirit who is doing it in and through you.
So how do I pray so that it is really the Holy Spirit prompting and guiding the prayer?
Trusting God to Give His Spirit
I think there are two basic answers. The first is faith. We pray “in the Holy Spirit” when we take our stand on the cross of Christ (which purchased all divine help) and trust God for his help by the Spirit. In other words, when you admit that without the help of the Spirit you cannot pray as you ought, and then you consciously depend on the Spirit to help you pray, then you are praying “in the Holy Spirit.” So the first answer to the question, How?, is by faith – by trusting God to give you the Holy Spirit to help you pray.
You can see this from the New Testament in several ways (see, for example, Galatians 3:1-5; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). One is that in Philippians 3:3 it says, “We worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Here, worshipping “in the Spirit of God” is explained by “put no confidence in the flesh.” I think that means, instead we put confidence in the Spirit, that is, in God’s blood-bought mercy to help us worship as we ought by his Spirit. So I take it that the way to “pray in the Holy Spirit” is the same as the way to worship “in the Spirit of God,” namely, by not putting any confidence in what we can do in our own nature, but instead looking away from our own resources and trusting in the mercy of God to help us pray by his Spirit.
That is what we should do this year in all our praying. Trust God for the help we need to pray. When you are too weak or too confused or too depressed or too angry or too dull to pray, at that moment do not assume that you can’t pray. Instead, consciously look away from yourself to Christ and to the mercy of God in Christ, and trust him to help you – even if it is only to produce groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). Learn to distrust yourself and to trust God in prayer. Learn that without him you can do nothing and cast yourself on him at all times for all you need in order to pray.
Let Your Prayers Be Shaped by God’s Word
The other answer to the question of how to pray “in the Holy Spirit” is to bring all your praying into conformity to the Word of God which the Spirit inspired (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Right here is where God’s call to be in the Word every day and his call to pray at all times in the Spirit become intertwined. If you live in the Word of God, meditating on it day and night by reading it every day and memorizing portions to carry with you all day and savoring them hour by hour, then your prayers will be shaped by the Word. Which means they will be shaped by the Spirit. And that is what it means to pray “in the Holy Spirit.” Not only to be moved by the Spirit in prayer, but to be guided by the Spirit in prayer. And since this is something we are called to do (“pray in the Holy Spirit”), our role is to take what we know about the Spirit’s will from the Word and saturate our prayers with it.
Keep Yourselves in the Love of God
So that is my pastoral appeal to you this year: Keep yourselves in the love of God by praying in the Holy Spirit. That is, pray continually by banking on the Spirit’s help and by living in the Spirit’s word in the Bible. Stay in the Bible and stay in prayer, and look away continually from your own resources to the infinite and merciful resources of God in Christ.
I close with some concrete examples of praying in a Bible-saturated way – which is a key to praying in the Holy Spirit.
When you ponder praying for $2.7 million more in pledges for Education for Exultation, recall texts like 1 Chronicles 29:18, where the people give lavishly to build the temple and David prays, “O Lord . . . preserve this forever in the intentions of the heart of Your people, and direct their heart to You.” Then pray about the intentions of the hearts of people and call on God to shape them and incline them toward generosity. And say with David in verse 14, “All things come from You, and from Your hand we have given You.”
When you ponder praying about the future of our church in 2001 and how to respond to growth, and how to structure for pastoral care and building and church planting and missions, etc., and how it all fits together to meet so many hundreds and thousands of needs, recall what Solomon prayed when the Lord said to him in 1 Chronicles 3:5, “Ask what you wish me to give you.” Solomon did not ask for long life, or riches or revenge on his enemies (3:11), but asked for “an understanding heart to judge Your people to discern between good and evil” (3:9).
When you ponder praying about the staff additions that are to come this year at Bethlehem, recall what Jesus said to the crowds in Matthew 9:38, “Beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” Pray with warrant from Christ himself that the right workers would be positioned in his kingdom.
When you ponder praying for boldness for yourself and others in evangelism, recall the way the church prayed in Acts 4:29 and what happened, “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence. . . . And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness” (4:29-31).
And when you love someone and ponder praying for his or her conversion, recall Romans 10:1 where Paul set his sights on his own Jewish kinsmen and said, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation.”
To be in the Word rightly is to be in prayer. And when faith and the Word shape prayer, we are praying in the Holy Spirit. And when we pray in the Holy Spirit, we keep ourselves in the love of God. And there every blessing in heaven will be ours. O learn to pray in the Word – for the sake of your soul and for the sake of the nations.
Similarly, Jesus prays in John 17:11-15 that the Father would keep us. “I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are. While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled. But now I come to You; and these things I speak in the world so that they may have My joy made full in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.”
Johannes E. Huther, Meyer’s Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the General Epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude, translator Paton J. Gloag (Winona Lake, Indiana: Alpha Publications, 1980, original, 1883), p. 697, italics added. See also John Calvin’s excellent comment on Jude 20: “This order of perseverance depends on our being equipped with the mighty power of God. Whenever we need constancy in our faith, we must have recourse to prayer, and as our prayers are often perfunctory, he adds, ‘in the Spirit,’ as if to say, such is the laziness, such the coldness of our makeup, that none can succeed in praying as he ought without prompting of the Spirit of God. We are so inclined to lose heart, and be diffident that none dares to call God ‘Father,’ unless the same Spirit puts the Word into us. From the Spirit, we receive the gift of real concern, ardor, forcefulness, eagerness, confidence that we shall receive – all these, and finally those groanings which cannot be uttered, as Paul writes (Romans 8:26). Jude does well indeed to say that no one can pray as he ought to pray, unless the Spirit direct him.” (John Calvin, A Harmony all of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, vol. 3 and the Epistles of James and Jude, translator, A. W. Morrison [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972], pp. 334-335).
See also the enabling role of the Spirit in our confessing Jesus as incarnate Lord: “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Similarly 1 Peter 4:11, “If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
Open My Eyes That I May See
Scripture: Psalms 119:17–24
Deal bountifully with Your servant, That I may live and keep Your word. 18 Open my eyes, that I may behold Wonderful things from Your law. 19 I am a stranger in the earth; Do not hide Your commandments from me. 20 My soul is crushed with longing After Your ordinances at all times. 21 You rebuke the arrogant, the cursed, Who wander from Your commandments. 22 Take away reproach and contempt from me, For I observe Your testimonies. 23 Even though princes sit and talk against me, Your servant meditates on Your statutes. 24 Your testimonies also are my delight; They are my counselors.
Parallel Rails for the Track of Our Souls
As we begin 1998, God‘s aim for us is that we be set on a two-railed train track in the direction of holiness and love and mission and heaven. The two rails of this train are prayer before the throne of God and meditation on the Word of God. Some of you may remember the second page of our Mission Statement booklet, “The Spiritual Dynamic.” It says,
We join God the Father in magnifying the supremacy of His glory through our Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, by treasuring all that God is, loving all whom he loves, praying for all his purposes, meditating on all his word, sustained by all his grace.
Praying before the throne of God and meditating on the Word of God are like parallel rails that enable the train of our souls to stay on the track that leads to holiness and heaven. We need to renew our zeal for prayer and Bible mediation at the beginning of the year. Everything gets old and worn and weak without re-awakening and renewal and restoration. So during Prayer Week every year we rivet our attention on these great and precious things in order to rekindle our passion for prayer and the Word.
Three Things to Learn from Psalm 119:18
This year the two messages that sandwich Prayer Week grow out of Psalm 119:18. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” This verse combines prayer and the Word, and we need to see how, so that we can combine them this way in our lives and in our church. There are three things that we learn from this verse.
- One is that there are wonderful things in the Word of God. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” The word “law” is “Torah” and means “instruction” or “teaching” in this psalm. There are wonderful things in God’s teaching to us. In fact, they are so wonderful that when you really see them, they change you profoundly and empower holiness and love and missions (2 Corinthians 3:18). Which is why reading and knowing and meditating on and memorizing the Word of God is so crucial.
- The second thing we learn from this verse is that no one can see these wonderful things for what they really are without God’s supernatural help. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” If God does not open our eyes, we will not see the wonder of the Word. We are not naturally able to see spiritual beauty. When we read the Bible without the help of God, the glory of God in the teachings and events of the Bible is like the sun shining in the face of a blind man. Not that you can’t construe its surface meaning, but you can’t see the wonder, the beauty, the glory of it such that it wins your heart.
- Which leads to the third thing we learn from this verse, namely, that we must pray to God for supernatural illumination when we read the Bible. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.” Since we are helpless in ourselves to see spiritual beauty and the wonder of God in the teachings and events of the Bible without God’s gracious illumination, we should ask him for it. “Open my eyes.”
A Three-Step Truth
Next week I plan to focus on the wonderful things in the Word of God and practically how we get them into our head and heart. But today I focus on prayer. I want us to see this profound three-step truth: The Word is crucial for living a Godward life that leads to heaven and has power and meaning on earth. We cannot even see what the Word really is without God’s supernatural help. And therefore we need to be a people of daily prayer that God would do whatever he must do to get the wonders of the Word into our hearts and into our lives.
Let’s take these three steps one at a time and see them confirmed and illustrated in other parts of the Bible.
1. The Word is crucial to a life of holiness
The first point is that seeing the Word and knowing it and having it in us is crucial to living a life of holiness and love and power for the purposes of God.
Look back at verse 11, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against you.” How then are we to avoid sin in our lives? By treasuring the Word of God in our hearts. O how many people mess up their lives by not meditating on and loving and memorizing the Word of God! Do you want to be holy, that is, do you want power to overcome sin and live a life of radical godliness and sacrificial love and utter devotion to the cause of Christ? Then get on the track. God has ordained a way to godliness and power: and it is the way of treasuring up the Bible in our hearts.
I say it to the old and I say it to the parents of the young. Meditate on and memorize and cherish the commandments and warnings and promises of God in the Scriptures. No, I do not say it is easy, especially when you are old. But most things worth doing are not easy. Making a fine piece of furniture, making a good poem, making a great piece of music, making a special meal or celebration – none of them is easy. But they are worth doing. Is not a good life worth doing?
Talitha is now two. She is beginning to learn Bible verses by heart. She is also learning the forms of prayer. Why? Why go to the trouble of taking time and effort to repeat over and over the Bible to her? Very simple – when she is a teenager I want her to be godly and pure and holy and loving and humble and kind and submissive and wise. And the Bible says, as plain as day, this comes by treasuring up the Word of God in your heart. “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against you.”
Jesus put it like this in his great prayer for us in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” “Sanctify” is a Biblical word for making a person holy or godly or loving or pure or virtuous or spiritually wise. And these things I want for myself and for my children and for you. So what then should we do this year? If we are sanctified by the truth, and the Word of God is truth, what should we do?
If a doctor says, “You’re very sick and may die of your sickness, but if you will take this medicine, you will get well and live,” and you neglect to take the medicine – too busy, the pills are big and hard to swallow, just forgetful – you are going to stay sick and you may die. That’s the way it is with sin and spiritual immaturity. If you neglect what God tells you will sanctify you and make you mature and strong and holy, then you will not be mature and strong and holy. Reading, and meditating on and memorizing and cherishing the Word of God is God’s appointed way of overcoming sin and becoming a strong, godly, mature, loving, wise person.
There are wonderful things to be seen in the Word of God that will transform you deeply if you really see them and treasure them in you.
2. We cannot see without God’s help
The second point in the text is that we are not able to see these wonderful things in the Word for what they really are without God’s supernatural help.
The reason is that we are fallen and corrupt and dead in sin and therefore blind and ignorant and hard. Paul described us like this in Ephesians 4:18 – we are “darkened in [our] understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in [us], because of the hardness of [our] heart.”
Here’s the way Moses wrote about this problem in Deuteronomy 29:2-4, “And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, ‘You have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt . . . those great signs and wonders [i.e., “wonderful things”]. Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor ears to hear.'” Notice: you have seen . . . but you cannot see without God’s supernatural work.
That is our plight. We are guilty and corrupt and hard and ignorant and blind without the awakening, enlivening, softening, humbling, purifying, enlightening work of God in our lives. We will never see the beauty of spiritual reality without God’s illumination. We will never see the wonder and glory of what the Word teaches without God’s opening the eyes of our hearts and giving us a spiritual sense of these things.
The point of teaching this and knowing this is to make us desperate for God and hungry for God, and to set us to pleading and crying out to God for his help in reading the Bible.
(On Point 2 see also: Matthew 16:17 with 11:4; and Luke 24:45; 1 Corinthians 2:14-16; John 3:6-8; Romans 8:5-8.)
3. We need to pray for God to help us see
Which leads to the last point: if knowing and treasuring the truth of God’s Word is crucial to being holy and loving and mature and heavenbound, and if we by nature cannot see the wonders of God’s Word and feel the attraction of its glory, then we are in a desperate condition and need to pray for God to help us see. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law.”
In other words, prayer is essential to Christian living, because it is the key to unlocking the power of the Word in our lives. The glory of the Word is like the shining of the sun in the face of blind man unless God opens our eyes to that glory. And if we don’t see the glory, we won’t be changed (2 Corinthians 3:18; John 17:17), and if we are not changed, we are not Christians.
In Ephesians 1:18 Paul prays this way. He says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling . . .” In other words, “I’ve taught you these things and you have received them with your external senses, but unless you perceive the glory of them with your spiritual sense (“the eyes of your heart”) you will not be changed. (See also Ephesians 3:14-19; Colossians 1:9 with 3:16). Now these are Christians he is writing to, which shows that we need to go on praying until we get to heaven for spiritual eyes to see.
Seven Kinds of Prayer to Soak our Bible Reading
But since our text is Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law,” we should let this psalmist show us how he prays more generally about his reading of the Word of God. So let me close with a little tour of Psalm 119, and show you seven kinds of prayer with which you can soak your Bible reading this year.
We should pray . . .
- That God would teach us his Word. Psalm 119:12b, “Teach me Your statutes.” (See also verses 33, 64b, 66, 68b, 135). True learning of God’s Word is only possible if God himself becomes the teacher in and through all other means of teaching.
- That God would not hide his Word from us. Psalm 119:19b, “Do not hide Your commandments from me.” The Bible warns of the dreadful chastisement or judgment of the Word of God being taken from us (Amos 8:11). (See also verse 43).
- That God would make us understand his Word. Psalm 119:27, “Make me understand the way of Your precepts” (verses 34, 73b, 144b, 169). Here we ask God to cause us to understand – to do whatever he needs to do to get us to understand his Word.
- That God would incline our hearts to his Word. Psalm 119:36, “Incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to [dishonest] gain.” The great problem with us is not primarily our reason, but our will – we are disinclined by nature to read and meditate and memorize the Word. So we must pray for God to incline our wills.
- That God would give us life to keep his Word. Psalm 119:88, “Revive me according to Your lovingkindness, so that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth.” He is aware that we need life and energy to give ourselves to the Word and its obedience. So he asks God for this basic need. (See also verse 154b)
- That God would establish our steps in his Word. Psalm 119:133, “Establish my footsteps in Your word.” We are dependent on the Lord not only for understanding and life, but for the performance of the Word. That it would be established in our lives. We cannot do this on our own.
- That God would seek us when we go astray from his Word. Psalm 119:176, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Your servant.” It is remarkable that this godly man ends his psalm with a confession of sin and the need for God to come after him and bring him back. This too we must pray again and again.
The Word, our Treasure
I conclude that as we enter 1998 and long to be holy and loving and radically committed to God’s purpose in the city and the nations, we must be people who treasure the Word in our hearts, but more – people who know our desperate condition apart from God and that he has appointed prayer as the way that our eyes will be opened to see wonder in the Word and so be changed. “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law. ”
How earnest was he in these kinds of prayers? How earnest should we be? One answer is given in Psalm 119:147, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I wait for Your words.” He gets up early! This is top priority. Would you make it that?
The Sovereignty of God and Prayer
I am often asked, “If you believe God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11) and that his knowledge of all things past, present, and future is infallible, then what is the point of praying that anything happen?” Usually this question is asked in relation to human decision: “If God has predestined some to be his sons and chosen them before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4,5), then what’s the point in praying for anyone’s conversion?”
The implicit argument here is that if prayer is to be possible at all man must have the power of self-determination. That is, all man’s decisions must ultimately belong to himself, not God. For otherwise he is determined by God and all his decisions are really fixed in God’s eternal counsel. Let’s examine the reasonableness of this argument by reflecting on the example cited above.
God Decides Who Will Be Saved
1. “Why pray for anyone’s conversion if God has chosen before the foundation of the world who will be his sons?” A person in need of conversion is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1); he is “enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:17; John 8:34); “the god of this world has blinded his mind that he might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians. 4:4); his heart is hardened against God (Ephesians 4:18) so that he is hostile to God and in rebellion against God’s will (Romans 8:7).
Now I would like to turn the question back to my questioner: If you insist that this man must have the power of ultimate self-determination, what is the point of praying for him? What do you want God to do for him? You can’t ask that God overcome the man’s rebellion, for rebellion is precisely what the man is now choosing, so that would mean God overcame his choice and took away his power of self-determination. But how can God save this man unless he act so as to change the man’s heart from hard hostility to tender trust?
Will you pray that God enlighten his mind so that he truly see the beauty of Christ and believe? If you pray this, you are in effect asking God no longer to leave the determination of the man’s will in his own power. You are asking God to do something within the man’s mind (or heart) so that he will surely see and believe. That is, you are conceding that the ultimate determination of the man’s decision to trust Christ is God’s, not merely his.
God’s Sovereignty Enables Prayer
What I am saying is that it is not the doctrine of God’s sovereignty which thwarts prayer for the conversion of sinners. On the contrary, it is the unbiblical notion of self-determination which would consistently put an end to all prayers for the lost. Prayer is a request that God do something. But the only thing God can do to save a lost sinner is to overcome his resistance to God. If you insist that he retain his self-determination, then you are insisting that he remain without Christ. For “no one can come to Christ unless it is given him from the Father” (John 6:65, 44).
Only the person who rejects human self-determination can consistently pray for God to save the lost. My prayer for unbelievers is that God will do for them what he did for Lydia: He opened her heart so that she gave heed to what Paul said (Acts 16:14). I will pray that God, who once said, “Let there be light!”, will by that same creative power “shine in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). I will pray that he will “take out their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). I will pray that they be born not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God (John 1:13). And with all my praying I will try to “be kind and to teach and correct with gentleness and patience, if perhaps God may grant them repentance and freedom from Satan‘s snare” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
In short, I do not ask God to sit back and wait for my neighbor to decide to change. I do not suggest to God that he keep his distance lest his beauty become irresistible and violate my neighbor’s power of self-determination. No! I pray that he ravish my unbelieving neighbor with his beauty, that he unshackle the enslaved will, that he make the dead alive and that he suffer no resistance to stop him lest my neighbor perish.
The Relationship between Prayer and Evangelism
2. If someone now says, “O.K., granted that a person’s conversion is ultimately determined by God’ I still don’t see the point of your prayer. If God chose before the foundation of the world who would be converted, what function does your prayer have?” My answer is that it has a function like that of preaching: How shall the lost believe in whom they have not heard, and how shall they hear without a preacher, and how shall they preach unless they are sent (Romans 10:14f.)? Belief in Christ is a gift of God (John 6:65; 2 Timothy 2:25; Ephesians 2:8), but God has ordained that the means by which men believe on Jesus is through the preaching of men.
It is simply naive to say that if no one spread the gospel, all those predestined to be sons of God (Ephesians 1:5) would be converted anyway. The reason this is naive is because it overlooks the fact that the preaching of the gospel is just as predestined as is the believing of the gospel: Paul was set apart for his preaching ministry before he was born (Galatians 1:15), as was Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5). Therefore, to ask, “If we don’t evangelize, will the elect be saved?” is like asking, “If there is no predestination, will the predestined be saved?” God knows those who are his and he will raise up messengers to win them. If someone refuses to be a part of that plan, because he dislikes the idea of being tampered with before he was born, then he will be the loser, not God and not the elect. “You will certainly carry out God’s purpose however you act but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” (Problem of Pain chapter 7, Anthology, p 910, cf. p 80)
God Uses Means
Prayer is like preaching in that it is a human act also. It is a human act that God has ordained and which he delights in because it reflects the dependence of his creatures upon him. He has promised to respond to prayer, and his response is just as contingent upon our prayer as our prayer is in accordance with his will. “And this is the confidence which we have before him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). When we don’t know how to pray according to God’s will but desire it earnestly, “the Spirit of God intercedes for us according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27).
In other words, just as God will see to it that his Word is proclaimed as a means to saving the elect, so he will see to it that all those prayers are prayed which he has promised to respond to. I think Paul’s words in Romans 15:18 would apply equally well to his preaching and his praying ministry: “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles.” Even our prayers are a gift from the one who “works in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). Oh, how grateful we should be that he has chosen us to be employed in this high service! How eager we should be to spend much time in prayer!
lord’s prayer line-by-line
THE SEVEN PETITIONS
- Our Father,
- Who art in heaven,
- Hallowed be thy name.
- Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
- Give us this day our daily bread.
- And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
- And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
- For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory. for ever and ever. Amen