God Will Change You

I am currently experiencing a number of changes in my life that I’m not real happy about. My daughter recently pointed to an old photograph of me and commented on how much hair I used to have. Over the past year I’ve noticed a subtle emergence of gray hair. I’ve also noticed that my body is not coping with the rigors of sport as well as it used to. I spend far too much time with my physio therapist.

Sensing my frustration with these changes, you can imagine my delight as I read about the positive transformation spoken of by the apostle Paul in 2Corinthians 4:16. Here Paul assures us, “Though outwardly, we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16).

What’s this transformation about? What are we being transformed into?

Paul answers, “(we) are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, with ever-increasing glory” (2Cor. 3:18).

We know from Romans 12 that there are things for us to do–there are things prescribed for us as we pursue Christ-likeness. In other words, growing in Christ-likeness requires our participation. But here’s the awesome thing: Growing in Christ-likeness does not depend upon your participation alone. The reason we can be confident in our spiritual progress is because God promises to help us along.

When Paul says that we “are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory“, he says in the same sentence that this “comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor. 3:18).

Now, someone might ask, “Why do I need to change? Doesn’t God accept me the way I am?”

Yes, God receives you as you are, but He does not leave you the way He finds you.

Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:25, 26).

By His grace, God saves impoverished souls, and in His love He does not leave us as impoverished souls.

He cleanses us. He imparts new qualities to us. In short, God changes us.

And so, even as I mourn the breakdown of my physical body, I rejoice at the inward transformation that is taking place. And as I struggle to help this process along with my imperfect devotion to Christ, I am consoled by the fact that God is nevertheless changing me.

As the hymn writer well puts it, “Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Amazing Grace!

Preferring Church Over Jesus

The letter to the Church in Ephesus, recorded in Revelation 2:1-7, captures my attention in that it describes a gathering of people who appear to care more about their church activities than they do about their relationship with Jesus.

The letter begins well. We are pleased to read that the Lord Jesus Christ perceives that many good things are happening at the Church in Ephesus. The commendation given to them by Christ is quite an impressive one.

I know your deeds”, Jesus tells them (Rev. 2:2).

This appears to be a busy congregation. This is not a congregation that merely gathers for an hour on Sunday morning and then scatters—the Ephesian Christians are accomplishing things. They are like a congregation in our day that has a vibrant Sunday School and a variety a mid-week programs. I suspect that the Ephesians are attentive to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised.

Jesus goes on to commend them, “I know . . . your toil”.

That is to say, ‘I recognize the effort required in your deeds.’ The Greek word for toil implies a loss of strength; or a weariness that results from the work. Apparently, the kind of deeds being carried out in the Church at Ephesus required significant energy. The work being done was not a nominal work. These were the kind of people who could be counted on to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Jesus commends them further, “I know . . . your perseverance”, He tells them.

The work of the church in Ephesus was not a short-term venture. This congregation is seeing their work through to conclusion. There don’t appear to be any ‘quitters’ in the Church at Ephesus. Evidently, the people who had signed up to do particular tasks were staying with their tasks.

If the commendation of the Church at Ephesus stopped here I would be sufficiently impressed, and yet, Jesus goes on: “I know . . . that you cannot endure evil men, and you put to test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2).

That the congregation in Ephesus is unwilling to “endure evil men” points to their integrity. This is a morally upright group of people. We also learn that they are a discerning group of people. The Church at Ephesus had the ability to identify imposters—people who presented themselves as apostles, but were not.

And then, after all of that—after saying all of those positive things about the Christians in Ephesus, we read what no church ever wants to hear from our Lord:

BUT

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (2:4).

The Lord Jesus Christ perceives many good things about the Church at Ephesus, but He also perceives that there is something fundamentally lacking with them—the people have forgotten that which is most vital: a loving relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can be sure that this is no little shortcoming based on the language employed by Christ. The element of loving Christ is so critical that the diminished expression of this love causes Christ to say that He has something “against” the congregation at Ephesus.

This is severe. If someone approaches you and says, ‘I have something against you’—that’s serious. So when Christ tells the congregation in Ephesus that He has something “against” them, my attention is sufficiently arrested. My attention is arrested, in part, because of the severity of the statement, but it is also arrested because I suspect these words apply to more congregations than we could probably number.

And, I suspect there are at least occasions when these words of our Lord apply to you and to me . . . “I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

The notion that you have diminished your love for Christ need not cause you to altogether despair. It brings me great relief to see that Jesus follows His severe words with an obtainable prescription. Though Christ be against us when our love departs, He prescribes for us a course that will return us to a right relationship with Him.

Christ prescribes for the people of Ephesus, and He prescribes for all who have wandered from the love of Christ, “Remember” . . . “Remember therefore from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first” (2:5).

What is implied in this prescription is the notion that our love had a distinct character when we began with Christ. I know mine did. I remember how I felt when I first comprehended that Christ died for me on the cross and that, in Him, I had found forgiveness for all my sins. I remember how inflamed my love for Christ was at the thought that He had become my Saviour, my Lord, and my friend.

Now, remember that each for yourselves. Did you have such a day? Was there a time when your love for Christ was such that you longed to pray to Him; a time when the prospect of gathering with His people on Sunday morning excited your very soul?

If there was such a time, remember it. Bring to mind those thoughts that overflowed into loving devotion.

If there was such a time when loving Christ was your first priority, if there was a time when Christ was the most important thing about you, it will also be helpful to ask yourself: “What has happened? Why is Christ less than that now?”

I agree with Charles Spurgeon, who asserts that our love grows cold when we neglect communion with Christ (not talking about the Lord’s Supper). Spurgeon is referring specifically to our dealings with Christ in prayer and our dealings with Christ as we read the Scriptures. Spurgeon goes on to say, ‘We shall never love Christ much (unless) we live near Him.’

Jesus’ call to “repent” (a word which means “to turn around”) then, is a call to us who are far off, to come near again. It is a call to us who have grown cold in our prayers, to return to fervent prayer. The call to repent is to us who have regarded the words of Scripture as bitter, to once again reckon them to be “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103).

This is the prescription of Jesus Christ to all those who have left their first love.

And lest anyone think that a return to Christ is unnecessary, He finishes His message to the Ephesians with strong words of persuasion, “I am coming to you, and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent . . . (but) to him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God” (2:5, 7).

In other words, this is a matter of life and death. The punishment threatened here is corporate—the removal of the “lampstand” signifies the removal of light and life from the local congregation.

What is your local congregation like? Does your congregation run excellent programs? Does it serve the poor? Do your people exert themselves for the Gospel? Is your congregation marked by moral integrity? But, of course, the Church in Ephesus was marked by such things.

It appears that we are not going to be judged according to how busy we are. It appears that we are not going to be evaluated according to whether we accomplish the items listed in our mission statement.

The most critical point is whether or not Jesus Christ is our first love.

Jesus doesn’t simply want us to love Him a lot. He wants us to love Him first.

I’m challenged by that. But I want that—for myself, for my family, for my congregation, and for you.

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“Recovering First Love”, based on Revelation 2:1-7, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 26, 2011.

“It’s Not You, It’s Me”

I’m breaking up with Facebook. And Twitter. And Television. And Bejeweled. And maybe Angry Birds.

Those who know me well, know that I am a bit of a techie nerd. I own 2 laptops, an iPad, and an iPhone. I build websites, I frequent all of the major social networks, and I love playing video games. None of these things, on their own, in moderation, are bad. I am very much pro-technology.

However…I was rereading parts of Tim Keller’s book, “King’s Cross”, yesterday and was massively convicted by the following quote: “After you’ve repented of your sins you’ll have to repent of how you have used the good things in your life to fill the place where God should be.”

I would never consciously try and put something in the place of God–that’s idolatry–but my attention is sufficiently arrested as I consider the time I would win back if I ceased certain online activities.

After being convicted by Keller’s comment, I then came across a quote from Billy Graham that sealed the deal for me. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, recently asked his “granddad” for some advice and then posted Graham’s answer on Twitter (ironic, I know): “If I could go back, I would’ve studied and prayed more.”

I’m thinking through Billy Graham’s answer trying to imagine what he put in the place of study and prayer. I’m guessing things like preaching and evangelizing. I then consider where I might find more time for study and prayer and the answer is markedly different: Break from, or massively curb time spent, engaging online social networks and playing video games.

So, for the month of August I’m giving up Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Bejeweled, & Television.

I must admit, I am sometimes cynical when I hear about other people “giving up things”. I have a sensitive nose for legalism and I don’t want to trade in my silly indulgences for self-righteous austerity. But if I don’t fill this newly created pocket of time with things that bring me and my family closer to God, then this exercise will have been in vain.

Accordingly, my aim will be to read more, write more, pray more, spend more time with my family in the evening hours and go to bed earlier. As much as I desperately need this lifestyle adjustment, I suspect that my family might benefit from these changes that I am seeking to implement. There were days when my young daughter would follow me onto our front porch with her Bible–to do what her papa was doing. Now, more often then not, she reaches first for her iPod Touch. I suspect she has learned that from me also.

One of my favourite passages within the Psalms reads: “Whom have I in heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25, 26).

I long to be able to echo that sentiment by the way I spend my time.

“Technology, I’m sorry. I think we need to take a break for a while. Honestly, it’s not you, it’s me.”

10 Books That Changed My Life

Christian Theology WorksDuring my years at Ridley College, and during my time at the University of Western Ontario (beginning as an English major), I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of excellent novels. Particularly memorable were Wuthering Heights, To Kill A Mockingbird, Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Frankenstein (I had a Sci-Fi bent). As good as these books were, none of them changed me.

As I set out below the 10 Christian books which did have a profound affect upon me, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that all “Christian” books transform and all “secular” books fail to transform. I don’t subscribe to that. I love how science fiction books stretch my imagination and challenge me to think outside of the box. I have read “secular” books that have elicited powerful emotions from me. I have also read Christian books that were a complete bore, and some which were utter nonsense. But, at the end of the day, as I consider the books (outside of the Bible) which had the biggest impact on me, it was this group of 10–all of which happened to be written for the benefit of followers of Jesus.

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My good friend, Brian K. Smith, introduced me to this book, and John MacArthur, in 1991 when I was a freshman in University. Having become a Christian as a teenager, I struggled to live that out consistently. This book challenged me by sensibly laying out what Jesus requires from His followers. Having understood that Jesus was my Saviour from sin, this book cemented in my mind the necessity of Jesus also being my Lord and Master. My Christian walk has never been the same after reading this compelling book.

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Before I even knew what an Arminian was, I was one. I imagined that I was the master of my own destiny. I reckoned that the faith I had in Jesus originated with me. It was again during my University (undergrad) years when a friend’s father encouraged me to read this book. I might say that Pink’s book was the sandpaper that prepared the surface of my heart so that the doctrines of grace and God’s sovereignty (as revealed in the Scriptures) might stick. Pink boldly lays before the reader two alternatives: “God must either rule, or be ruled; sway, or be swayed; accomplish His will, or be thwarted by His creatures.”

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I am certain that during my undergrad years of University I read more Christian theology / lifestyle books than I did University textbooks. Jerry Bridges’ book was one that I read a couple of times during those years. I had been lukewarm in my faith for too long. The gap between what I believed and how I behaved was too big. Bridge’s book set me on the path to pursuing holiness. To keep this from becoming a legalistic pursuit, I strongly recommend following this work with Bridge’s Transforming Grace, which I read in 1993.

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If there was ever a book that I wished I had read before graduating from seminary, it is this one. It wasn’t until I was in my second charge as a Presbyterian Pastor that I was introduced to this excellent work. Recommended to me at a conference at Alistair Begg’s church, Lectures To My Students helped me to recalibrate my personal walk with Christ in a way that it overflows into the ministry entrusted to me. Before reading this work, I fear that I had compartmentalized my private faith from my public faith. A must read for every pastor and soon-to-be pastor.

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This is another work that I picked up at the recommendation of Alistair Begg. In my mind, this is the best book ever written on preaching. Why do I include it in a list of the books that helped “change my life”? Because one of the strengths of this work is Lloyd-Jones’ understanding that preaching and the preacher can’t be separated. The one inevitably affects the other. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon.”

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I think it was 1999 when I first heard John Piper preach at Moody Pastors Conference. I’ll never forget the main point of his message: “Stop serving Jesus…as if He needed you!” Piper was addressing then, and does so thoroughly in this book, our tendency to want to “pay God back” for the grace we receive in Jesus. Piper makes the compelling argument that we cannot live the Christian life today fuelled by yesterday’s grace. We need grace today! Furthermore, we need grace in the future in order to do that which we are called to do.

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Having come to accept the doctrines of grace, as revealed in the Scriptures and explained by the Reformers, what remained for me was to understand how God’s sovereignty affects every aspect of our everyday life in a most positive way. Hearing R.C. Sproul speak on this over a weekend of lectures at a Ligonier Conference in Toronto, and reading this work, hugely advanced my understanding of God’s sovereignty and what it means for Him to work “all things together for good” (Rom. 8:28). One of my favourite quotes from the book: “The Providence of God is our fortress, our shield, and our very great reward. It is what provides courage and perseverance for His saints.”

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The turning point within my first pastoral charge (1998-2002) was hearing Piper preach at Moody, and reading this book. I feel like there is a huge difference between the Bryn MacPhail who pastored and preached before reading this book, and the Bryn MacPhail who has laboured since, guided by the compelling principle that “God is most glorified in me, when I am most satisfied in Him.” Members of my congregation at the time even noted the change in my preaching, which had shifted to a new focus: magnifying the supremacy of Jesus in all things. The other distinguishing mark was learning to labour as a delight rather than as a duty. I imagine that this book makes a lot of Christians’ Top 10 lists.

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I read Crazy Love in 2009, in the final year of my pastoral charge in Toronto. This book challenged and changed me on so many levels I don’t even know where to start. Using this space for any kind of review won’t do this book justice. You’ll have to read it for yourself. Disclaimer: This book will make you squirm. I highly recommend the accompanying video curriculum (which I have done with 4 groups in the last 2 years). Chan has a endearing, sensible, manner to him which helps immensely as he lays out some intense biblical principles for us to apply. One of my favourite quotes from the book: “God doesn’t call us to be comfortable. He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are unafraid to put ourselves in situations where we will be in trouble if He doesn’t come through.”

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I was 19 years old when I first read the Institutes. If that sounds young, remember that Calvin wrote the first edition of the Institutes in his mid 20s! I confess to first reading Calvin in order to understand this mysterious doctrine of election. It’s as if I went mining for one gem, but found a myriad of gems. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once described preaching as “logic on fire”–that is exactly how I would describe Calvin’s work in the Institutes. To reduce the Institutes to a treatise on election is to entirely miss the boat. Nowhere else have I found such a rich Christology, such a profound description of the majesty of God, and such a compelling description of how the church should conduct itself. For a book loaded with complex theological statements, one of my favourite quotes from the Institutes is beautifully simple: “Whatever we need and whatever we lack is in God.”


 

Pray Like Jabez

PrayingVery few people had even heard of Jabez until the release of Bruce Wilkinson’s best selling book from 2000, “The Prayer of Jabez“. Everything we know about Jabez comes from two verses tucked between lengthy genealogical tables within the not often studied book of 1Chronicles.

We are told that Jabez “was more honourable than his brothers” and that his name means “pain” because his mother gave birth to him in pain. We have his four petition prayer, God’s reply, and that’s it. That’s everything we know about Jabez.

The prayer itself is quite short, and my suspicion is that our interest in this prayer has a great deal to do with the statement which immediately follows it: “God granted (Jabez) what he requested.

We read that, and the logical train we create looks something like this:

  • Jabez made some petitions to God in prayer.
  • God gave Jabez what he asked for.
  • If we make the same petitions as Jabez, then God will give us what we ask for.

While the logic of that seems rather tidy, I would submit that we will be quickly tripped up if we don’t have a good handle on what Jabez’s petitions are precisely asking for, and an equally good handle on the purposes (end game) for which he makes these petitions.

This past Sunday, I unpacked the prayer of Jabez in a message entitled, “Jabez: Passion For Blessing“. You can listen to the entire message (audio below), but my conclusion was this: What Jabez wanted for himself was precisely what God wanted for Jabez. And this is why God granted him what he requested.

It’s not the case that God is like a cosmic vending machine, and if we put in the correct configuration of prayer change then we get what we want–it’s not that at all! I would argue that one of the primary aims of prayer is to bridge the gap between what we want and what God wants, until it comes to be that we want the same thing.

I regard Jabez to have wanted what God wanted. He reflected that in his prayer, and his requests were granted. It is in this sense that I encourage you: Pray like Jabez.

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“Jabez: Passion For Blessing”, based on 1Chronicles 4:9,10, was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirk on Sunday, June 5, 2011.