The Marks of the Christian

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And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11, NIV

The Marks of the Christian

Regularly reading the New Testament ought to remind us of the ways contemporary Christians fall far short of the vision of the Christian life found among the early Christians.

I’m convinced that this shortfall is rooted, at least in part, by our neglect of the Bible as our rule of faith and life.

Faithful friends

As the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Philippi, we note his obvious affection for them (verses 3 and 8) and his gratitude for they way they have come alongside him in his gospel ministry (verse 5). Despite the personal cost and the difficulty of the Apostolic work entrusted to Paul, the fellowship of Christians like those in Philippi have made the burden more bearable as together they have entrusted themselves to the grace of Christ.

Personal transformation

These faithful brothers and sisters in Christ Paul reminds of God’s transformative purpose. “[H]e who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion in the day of Christ Jesus” (verse 6b).

Who among us doesn’t need to be reminded of Christ’s promise to work in us by faith the transformation we need so that when we meet him face to face we may step into a new creation free from the curse of sin and death?

We’re not yet the people we will become, but those who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus are moving–if at time haltingly–in the direction of Christ-likeness.

Paul’s prayer

Paul shares with his readers the content of his prayer for them and I suspect that Paul would pray the same for us today. This prayer shows us at least three marks of the Christian, that is characteristics of one who is a growing disciple of Christ. 

Able to discern (verse 9-10a)

Christians ought to be loving. And the love that marks our lives must be, according to Paul, a love that has some attendant qualities. Christian love is marked by growing “knowledge and insight.”

Knowledge and insight of what? It’s difficult to know precisely what Paul means here. At the very least it would seem to imply an experiential knowledge of God and of God’s revelation of Himself to us in the Bible. It is this knowledge that enables us to “discern what is best,” that is what most closely aligns with God’s revealed will.

Pure and blameless (verse 10) 

This discernment, rooted as it is in a love that is marked by knowledge and insight, produces in our lives a purity and a blamelessness. The concepts of purity and blamelessness seem to be neglected in contemporary Christianity.

All Christians are positionally pure and blameless because the obedience of Christ and his sacrifice on the cross have been credited to our account. However, what Paul is talking about here is volitional purity and blameless–it is based upon choice and upon actions that together form a way of life.

Fruit of righteousness (verse 11)

Christians are expected to produce the “fruit of righteousness” that is the product derived from the above and that is expressed inwardly before it is expressed outwardly.

It’s not difficult to see how we all have a long way to go on this. Ask God what needs to change in your life so that you’re not only willing, but able to devote yourself to Him in a way that leads to transformation.

Five questions about Christian fasting

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A friend recently asked me some questions about the spiritual discipline of fasting. I’m not an expert on fasting, but I tried to give some straightforward answers to her questions based on my understanding of the Scriptures from a reformed perspective.

I’ll share a modified version of my reply to her, with her permission.


Dear A,

Fasting is certainly a powerful spiritual discipline. Since God is inviting you, it seems, to practice regular fasting and prayer, it’s right that you should look into it.

The Christian tradition provides for varying reasons for fast: repentance for sin (personal or systemic), in order to deepen prayer or the experience of God, in order to intercede for something/someone, etc. Do you sense that this call is related to missions [she spoke about a concern for mission in her letter]? Is it related to something else?

Here are some specific responses to the questions you posed, I hope they’re helpful.

  • “Here’s some things I’m pondering: is there a certain day of the week that is supposed to be used for fasting?”

Traditionally fasts were observed on Fridays and not on Sundays because Friday recalls Good Friday and Christ’s sacrificial death and Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, the Lord’s Day when we celebrate His resurrection.

  • “Does it include not drinking water as well?”

As far as I know, fasting never includes abstaining from water. The body needs water more than it needs food and it can be dangerous to deprive yourself of it. Typically it is food (generally), or certain type of food like red meat.

  • Is there a certain way I should be praying throughout the day, like focus on just one thing?

My counsel is that on a regular basis you devote two periods of time to prayer—one in the morning; one in the evening. This was the practice of the English Puritans. Then, throughout the day cultivate the practice of praying as you encounter people/things/impressions. This way life can become a conversation with God. I always encourage believers to pray Scripture, especially the Psalms.

You can meditate during the day as well—typically by slowly reading/praying Holy Scripture (Psalms).

  • Is there any place in the Bible that talks about how to fast? 

To my recollection, the only passage that really speaks about fasting is the admonition to keep your fast a secret. Inherent in all spiritual practices is our propensity to begin to look at these practices as things that earn us favor with God or that make us better than other believers. Both of these impulses are a type of idolatry and are not good for the soul. See Mt 6:16-18.

  • Does it make the prayers more holy/ what is the significance?

Fasting doesn’t make your prayers more holy; rather, God can use the practice to make you more holy, which is infinitely more beneficial!

Grace and peace,

Jeff

Concerning the true church

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No visible Church has any right to say, “We are the only true Church. We are the men, and truth shall die with us.” No visible Church should ever dare to say, “We shall stand forever. The gates of hell will not overcome us.” This is that Church to which belong the Lord’s precious promises of preservation, continuance, protection, and final glory. “Whatever,” says Hooker, “we read in Scripture, concerning the endless love and saving mercy which God shows towards His Churches, the only proper subject is this Church, which we properly term the mystical body of Christ.” Small and despised as the true Church may be in this world, it is precious and honorable in the sight of God. The temple of Solomon in all its glory was nothing, in comparison with that Church which is built upon a rock.

J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches

My perspective on children and Holy Communion

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One of the things I most enjoy about pastoring is leading the congregation to the Lord’s Table. Holy Communion is a vital part of the Christian life, given to us as spiritual food for the journey. Ideally, I’d like to celebrate Holy Communion weekly in at least one worship service.

communion

From time to time people ask me about children’s participation in the sacramental life of the church. Should children receive communion? If so, when? 

There are a variety of ways to answer this question. Some presbyterians do not allow children to receive the sacrament until they are in 9th grade and meet with the Session for confirmation. This is related to Paul’s warning to the Corinthians in 2 Cor. 11–those receiving must be able, they suggest, to examine themselves. Others insist that children be admitted to the Table from their infancy since they are children of the covenant and heirs of the promises of the covenant. Our congregation has chosen–as a general rubric–that kids ordinarily begin receiving Holy Communion in second grade after our Bible brunch and communion lesson.

So, what’s the right answer? What we (that is, the Gissings) have chosen to do is wait until the kids ask to receive communion. If they never did, we would likely have waited till 2nd grade. Nathan, however, asked to begin receiving communion when he was six. We spent several times talking to him about the meaning and mode of Holy Communion so that he was able to explain why he wanted to receive it and something of the meaning of the sacrament. Eliza, who is five, recently asked and we’re in the process of working with her to prepare her to receive it.

In choosing this course, we have kept in mind several principles:

  1. Holy Communion is serious, but not somber. Tellingly, we celebrate the Eucharist. It is an encounter with the living Christ where we feed on him in our hearts by faith. As such it is both serious, but a joyful thing.  
  2. 2 Corinthians 11 may not be entirely normative. Some conservative Presbyterians (mis)read 2 Corinthians 11 to make it seem that God is waiting to smite those who do not worthily receive the body and blood of Christ. Paul warns that there is a wrong way to receive communion. Generally, however, I think most of the improper ways of receiving communion apply to adults more than to children who typically come to meet Jesus.
  3. Children should be instructed, but not intimidated. We explained to Nathan and Eliza what Communion means and why it’s important. We did our best to emphasize that it’s an important rite, but not something they should be scared of.
  4. Honor your congregation’s structure and practices. As important as it if for your child to receive the sacrament, it’s also important to honor the decisions and practices of your church body.
  5. Err in the direction of grace. With children, it’s safe to err in the direction of grace. In other words, it seems to me that God will not turn a little one away who comes to him in the simple, innocent manner of a child.

What do you think?

The five marks of an elder

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The ministry of elders–both teaching and ruling elders–is crucial to maintaining a healthy congregation that follows the biblical pattern of leadership. We often take elders for granted and shape the office around secular leadership positions that we’re familiar with. Some see elders as board members and others see them as heads of a family. Neither is fully true to the New Testament’s description of elder, which has seven marks:

Source: http://daytonopenbible.blob.core.windows.net/fcob/2015/02/holding_open_bible_banner.jpg

1. Elders watch over the people as a shepherd watches over his sheep. The office is one of oversight designed to maintain the faithfulness of a congregations life and ministry in reliance on the Holy Spirit. See Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5; Acts 20:28-31; 1 Peter 5:1-4.

2. Elders lead by example. They should not be domineering but should be examples to the flock, people they can emulate. 1 Peter 5:3.

3. Elders must lead the congregation away from error and into truth. Eldership is spiritual leadership and those who entrusted with this sort of leadership must guide the congregation to right belief and practice that accords with the Bible rather than, “every wind of doctrine.” Ephesians 4:11. 

4. Some elders will teach. The New Testament assumed that some elders have a teaching function and others simply have a spiritual leadership or ruling function. In modern parlance we talk about teaching elders as “pastors” and ruling elders simply as “elders.” 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:9.

5. Eldership is a heavy responsibility and it demans mature faith and character. The New Testament advises that we not cavalierly wish for spiritual leadership. Being placed in a position of spiritual leadership too early can be the undoing of a young believer. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9.

For these reasons and more, every believer should make it a priority to pray for those in leadership of the congregation. When they make decisions, trust them. And always make sure to root your faith and participation in the life of the congregaiton in the Word of God.