Hawthorn Presbyterian Church

The Necessity of Being Born Again

[First published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for February, 2018.]

The Necessity of Being Born Again—that is, if we would be reconciled to God!

If there is one descriptor of the Christian which the world likes to mock or disparage, it is the term “born again”. Someone might say, “Oh he is one of those ‘born again’ Christians,” as if by that description their dismissal and refusal to listen further to what that person believes is justified. We can understand the world’s dislike of the term. But sadly, we are persuaded there are also some (perhaps many, we do not know) associated with Christian churches in some way, who also seem to reject the notion that they should be “born again”. For them, that is the stuff of fundamentalism and fanaticism and not the stuff of respectable civic religion! They may readily admit that they are not perfect and they try hard to follow Jesus’ ethical and moral values of the Sermon on the Mount. Perhaps they see themselves making progress in personal improvement. To them it seems only proper that their accumulated goodness and kindness should be rewarded, even to the point of earning entry to heaven!

Jesus tells us something different. In His discussion with Nicodemus, the eminent Jewish theologian, (see John 3) He came straight to the point: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:3)—no ifs, buts, or maybes. All at once with His trademark directness, Jesus assured Nicodemus that there is nothing that he or anyone in their natural human condition can do to earn favour with God or a right to be in His presence in peace. Reconciliation is not prioritised for the learned or clever; not the rich and neither to the poor; not for the contemplative or meditative; not even the “kind and caring” the “wise” or even the religiously zealous—of which in our day, as his, there are many, many different sorts!

So what does it depend on? Well, as with our first birth, it does not depend upon any thing that we might do. This was the basic flaw in Nicodemus’ thinking As he saw it, reconciliation was something he should do but Jesus seemed to be speaking in terms of human impossibilities (v. 4)! Being born again is a work initiated by the Spirit of God, a work equally creative and equally sovereign as that of the first creating work of the Spirit (Gen 1:2). And in parallel with our natural birth, the “spring” of this birth is love, not human but Divine. What a blessing, otherwise there would be no hope!

This is sometimes troubling. Someone will think, “If I must be born again and it is not something I can effect, then how can I know if I am born again?” or even, “How can I know that I will be born again?” There is mystery here but as Jesus revealed to Nicodemus, there are things we can hear but not understand until God makes them clear. If we are concerned, we must wait patiently—and trust God. However, although we cannot see the Spirit or His exact activity, Jesus says we can see His effects and one of those effects, indeed the chief effect, is to reveal and convict of the need for Jesus as the only means of escaping the condemnation which our sins deserve (John 3:16-17).

Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus and makes it clear to you dear reader, that the new birth cannot be separated from your attitude to Him. If you will not come, questions of the new birth are academic. There is no mystery, you choose to remain dead in your sins (3:18). But if you are drawn to Jesus in any way, hear all He says! Hear Him speak and demonstrate the love of God and be drawn to love Him because of it. As you come and believe, you will begin to see that God was first at work in you and in your life, graciously drawing you by His Spirit in ways that never cease to amaze.

The Wisdom of Learning from Solomon

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for January, 2018.]

When given an opportunity to ask something from God at the beginning of his reign it must have seemed to the young Solomon that he was presented with an open cheque book!! (See 1 Kings 3). I am sure that asking for riches and honour and all the trappings usually associated with power crossed his mind. After all, he was inheriting the throne of his father David, and he had been blessed in this way. Surely if Solomon has still more, there is no doubt that other nations would have to sit up and take notice of Israel’s God!! Instead, he prayed asking for, “an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of yours.” He was moved to prioritise the possession of wisdom before the material and temporal marks of his position, even though it was those very material things that, humanly speaking could be used to defend and extend his kingdom, and which would be used to build the temple. Some things are more desirable than gold.

In reply, God made it clear that He was greatly delighted with this request and the humility that lay behind it. Graciously he determined to add all the things that could have been requested (vv 11-13). And, in case we think that this is now a good way to bargain with God, we have to remind ourselves that He did not have to do this. Material prosperity is never an automatic reward for faith.

Solomon’s request was quite likely driven by an awareness of his own sinful heart in the presence of God. Before we are told of his request we read that he had contracted a marriage from outside Israel and been active in the unhelpful and idolatrous laissez faire worship practices of the day (3:1-3). Both would have been displeasing to God and improper in one called to lead as king. Certainly after this encounter his worship was very different (v. 15), his wisdom proverbial, he became politically strong, and the temple was finally built (Chs 4-10). So far so good… but we cannot presume…

The Bible is brutally honest. Despite his great wisdom Solomon would not passively out-grow his own sin. Even the wise must fight! If women and false worship were a challenge at the start of his reign, they were to be a challenge throughout as Ch 11 reveals, “…and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God as was the heart of his father David …[he] built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab…so the Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned from the Lord… who had appeared to him twice (vv.1,4,7 & 9). He would lose the kingdom! How sad that despite such extraordinary wisdom and blessing, Solomon seemed to take his position for granted and gave little thought to cultivating obedience and holiness for himself or the nation. (Perhaps this abrupt rebuke prompted the warnings and wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes?)

God delayed judgment on Solomon because of his covenant with David, (11:13) and patiently endured Solomon’s folly in trying to thwart His purposes (11:40). Is God delaying judgement upon our nation because of a more faithful past? We don’t know; perhaps we never will. But we can know this: If we come to Him in repentance and faith, God has covenanted to turn away His judgment on our sin, because of the covenant with the Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ. Here is amazing grace but it must not be taken for granted. We must take care to appreciate it, to cultivate it and respond to it in ongoing obedience. We can also know that if we have drifted away from past blessings (like Solomon) today is the time to return. We must confess and repent of past presumption, drifting, busyness, compromise and even rebellion, and come back, praying to be received—and we will be. This is Wisdom.

Face to Face With Jesus

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for December, 2017]

Christmas time is an occasion for catching up with old friends, renewing family links and sharing news, and generally being sociable. We’ll send emails, annual letters, photos and Christmas cards to folk we have not seen for years, and phone lines will run hot. And, if we cannot be with those we love directly there’s always “face time” (or its many proprietary variations) which is the nearest thing to being there. We should be thankful that courtesy of technology, distance is no hindrance to personal communication. But of course, nothing beats seeing our loved ones “face to face” where we can share tangible things such as food, personal hugs, the sound of our voices and the joys of simply being in someone’s presence. For a few days, at least, the world becomes a smaller, friendlier place. Wars have ceased on Christmas Day!

It is not surprising to us that a time focused on remembering the Incarnation, when the Eternal Son of God took on a true humanity, and “visited” us should bring such benefits. Anything that draws us into real community is a blessing, so that even an atheist might grudgingly admit that on balance Christmas is a season worth remembering. But the Incarnation of Jesus was for infinitely more than improving life on earth for a few days, and we must always try to point this out to others.

In Eden, Adam and Eve had pure, open communication with God. They could speak, “face to face” as it were. The whole of the Garden was there for their tangible benefit, and there was nothing but perfection in their relationship—hugs and all! But Adam chose to break this perfection, and humanity has been cursed and broken ever since. What was a “face to face” relationship ended with Adam and Eve in hiding, fearing and then expelled from, the presence of God. Everything hopeful would have ended right there and then had it not been for God’s amazing grace; a grace as powerful as (but not greater than) His justice, truth, holiness, wrath. That grace is seen in Jesus.

In Jesus, from conception to manhood, God Himself was entering human existence in the most tangible and real way we can imagine—putting aside the terrifying glory of His holiness (though not holiness itself) and becoming one with us. And He was doing so so that the great barrier of human sinfulness and condemnation could be finally, but righteously, broken down; a Man doing for us what had to be done but which no other man (or woman) could do—paying the penalty for sin under the curse of the Cross. In Adam (there is no alternative) all die. But all in Christ, shall live!

Prior to the Incarnation, God had entered into human existence through the words of His prophets and by revealing His covenant. His grace kept communication open, and communication in reply was through sacrifice and prayer. How breathtakingly sad then, the comment, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not…” (John 1:11). We understand “hanging up” on a telemarketer or other unwanted call, but to refuse the call of the living God Himself is provocative and deadly folly!

In many ways, observing Christmas yet rejecting Jesus, is akin to doing the same thing—hanging up on a call from the Living God, refusing His offer of “face time” through the Bible and His Spirit, preferring to enjoy the celebration of life without Him. Sounds like today’s Australia, doesn’t it. But let us look first to ourselves. How shall it be with you, dear reader? One day, it will not just be “face-time” but “face to face” directly! What will He say to you on that day? “Welcome! Come, join the feast” or “Depart!”?

That may depend on how you respond to Him today.

Finding Safety in Deep Water

[first published in the monthly congregational “Notes” for November, 2017]

I recently saw some remarkable footage from Northern Ontario, Canada, of a wolf trying to attack and kill a moose. The moose was out in reasonably shallow water where presumably it had been enjoying the peace and quiet when the wolf dived in from the shore. The wolf was very nimble but for a while the moose faced up to it successfully. The wolf kept backing up, but the process risked drawing the moose closer to the shore where the water was shallower, and where the wolf had the advantage of manoeuvrability.

Eventually, and while in the water, the wolf was able to latch on to the moose behind one of its front legs in a way that it was very difficult for the moose to dislodge it. If the moose went on to the land, it would surely lose—and die. The moose stayed in the water, going around and around in circles trying to dislodge the wolf, but to no avail. It looked as if there was no hope. Somehow (whether from fatigue or as a result of losing its footing, or as a deliberate act I do not know) the moose dipped below the water. As a result, the wolf momentarily let go – perhaps because it needed to come up for air, or simply because it was caught by surprise. Either way, the moose was suddenly free, but the wolf was quickly looking to latch on again.

This time, instead of trying to make the shore, (where it would surely lose) the wounded moose turned and went out into the lake with the wolf in pursuit. Where the water was shallow, the wolf made ground on the moose; where the water was deeper, the wolf lost ground as it had to swim and could not move as fast. Eventually the wolf turned back and the moose, though wounded, was free.

It was wonderful photography, but my mind immediately saw an illustration of a deep spiritual lesson. While the moose was on ground helpful to the wolf it would surely lose and die. Its only hope lay in the deep water where the wolf was limited.

We usually use the idea of being in “deep water” to indicate being in trouble but in this case, “deep water” was safety. Here is my lesson: While I fight temptation in my own strength, and on the devil’s territory or with my own tactics, I will surely lose. He is far more cunning, far more subtle, far more powerful than I am. Yes, I am called to resist the Devil (1Pet 5:9 & James 4:7) but I am a fool if I think that I can stand up to him on my own. The strength to resist has to be Christ’s not mine. I need a place so deep that the Devil cannot stand, where he loses power and is himself forced to turn and flee. That place is with Christ, and if I truly repent of my sin and commit to Him in faith, He will never turn me away and will surely keep me! John Newton put it so wonderfully in his hymn Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat:

Be Thou my Shield and Hiding Place, That sheltered near Thy side,

I may my fierce accuser face, And tell him Thou has died.* (verse 4)

So, with such a safe, guaranteed place, why do I wander away? Why indeed! It is folly! The only explanation I can really offer is that I do not love Him as I should; that I do not yet realise how serious was, and is, my continued need of Him. And yet despite my folly He still loves me! How wonderfully persevering is His patience! Yes, one day I shall be changed fully; that day is not yet here, BUT I know it is coming!

The Deadly Temptation to Independence!

[first published in the monthly congregational Notes for October, 2017]

It is a mark of our time in many parts of the West, that “everyone does what is right in their own eyes” (as in Judges 21:25!!) and is encouraged to keep on doing so. We are told that to be really “mature” and “independent” we must break away from past values and choose our own boundaries. This, we are told, is truly “coming of age”. Independence of this sort eventually leads to social isolation and fragmentation, and one fears that unless we break away from this foolish notion, all that our civilisation has accumulated over the centuries will quickly be lost. One natural reaction is to clamp down on all expressions of independence in order to keep what we have, perhaps even to take away freedoms altogether, as happens in dictatorships (which is often the only way in which societies can hold together). But independence does not have to lead to fragmentation if we follow God’s model for society: the family.

The Bible tells parents to expect and facilitate a godly sense of “independence”. Children are to grow up expecting that in the normal course of events they can leave mother and father and cleave to husband or wife, forming another “independent unit” in the process (Gen 2:24). But this independence was never intended to be absolute (just as new branches on a tree are not separate from the branches before them) nor was it ever intended to facilitate the misuse of power and authority. We are all saddened at that “independence” which breaks families (and marriages) apart, even as we recognise that sometimes it is the only possible avenue for relief.

The Devil exercised a rebellious independence and was cast out of heaven and condemned. He hates all that is good, and therefore hates the family structure, and does all he can to pervert it. He did this in Eden when he persuaded Adam and Eve that the path to true maturity lay in disobeying God and acting on their own. He argued that their “dependence” was belittling, that they should assert themselves in order to show that they were truly created in the image of God. “Was God independent? Then it was only fitting that they should be so as well!” Sadly they were persuaded; deceived into adopting a false understanding of “independence” and that the forewarned consequence of disobedience (death) was an unfair restriction.

The temptations the Devil pressed upon Jesus were in temptations to be “independent”. He should rebel against the Spirit who compelled him to go into the desert, by feeding himself his own way (Matt 4:3). He should repudiate the way of the cross and conquer death miraculously (vv. 5-6). He should win the world in an instant without the aid of the Spirit by a single act of worship (v. 8). Thankfully, Jesus did not succumb. He understood that the Devil’s temptations to him in his humanity were dedicated to destroying his role as perfect man and saviour. Jesus did not need to repudiate the Father’s plan of redemption in order to validate himself. He did not need to reject the infilling of the Spirit in order to validate his identity. As God he did not fear that dependence on His Father’s will somehow lessened his deity or his co-equality!

Jesus demonstrated that depending upon God does not destroy true identity but affirms it. As God’s creation, our highest and best identity is found in being what we were created to be, but Adam’s independence has made that humanly unattainable. In Adam, all die—physically and eternally because independence from God is sin and the wages of sin is death. True life, eternal and spiritual is only possible through the free grace of God. By definition, grace is something we cannot merit and no-one can merit it for us except Jesus, because he has been appointed by the Father to be our substitute: His died for us, and his resurrected life is for us.

So, dear reader, when the Gospel calls you to surrender your independence and follow him, do not refuse it! You are being called to receive a new identity graciously given forever! And dear Christian reader, note too that Jesus has demonstrated that the only sure defence against all ongoing temptations to independence is faithful submission to the Word of God.

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