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Lesson 12: Keeping the Fifth— Exodus 20:12 (Eph. 6:1-4)

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We live in a day of rampant children’s rights. In Sweden, a model for the movement, it is illegal to spank your children or even to administer such discipline as sending them to bed or depriving them of TV. The laws are enforced by social workers, special courts, and the police. In our country, children now can divorce their parents and move on to a new set who will not be so demanding. Years ago the Duke of Windsor observed, “The thing that impresses me about America is the way parents obey their children.”

This widespread disregard for parental authority over their children, coupled with the influence of psychology, which has advised us not to do anything to stifle a child’s emotions or to damage his self-esteem, has led to a disregard, even in Christian circles, of keeping the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and mother.” The apostle Paul puts it, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth” (Eph. 6:3). Having just studied Ham, who as an adult dishonored his father Noah, resulting in a curse on Ham’s descendants through Canaan, I thought it would be fitting on this Mother’s Day to take a look at the neglected Fifth Commandment.

As you know, the Ten Commandments may be divided into two sections, each reinforcing the two greatest commandments. The first four commands spell out what it means to love the Lord our God: Not to have any other gods before Him; not to make or serve any idols; not to take His name in vain; and, to keep the sabbath day holy. The last six commands teach us how to love our neighbor as we do, in fact, love ourselves: To honor our fathers and mothers; not to murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet anything belonging to our neighbor.

Standing at the head of this second section, the commandment to honor our parents is foundational to keeping all that follow. If we truly honor our parents, we will not disgrace their name by becoming a murderer, by being unfaithful to our marriage vows, by stealing, by lying, or by the greed and discontent underlying covetousness. The keeping of the Fifth Commandment also works back toward the first four. If we are rebellious and disrespectful toward our parents who gave us life and sustenance, we will also probably be rebellious and disrespectful toward the Lord God, our creator and sustainer. Disrespect toward parents and God will also carry over into disrespect for all authority, and thus will result in a breakdown of law and order, leading to a disintegration of the very basis for civilized society. Thus the keeping of the Fifth Commandment is not some outmoded, quaint idea to be set aside without consequence. It is vital to the survival of our nation.

Before we look at what it means to keep this command, I want to point out that if you keep it, you and your family will stand out as distinct from our culture, especially when your children are teenagers. I reject the culturally accepted idea, brought to us by those wonderful folks in developmental psychology, that a period of rebellion and defiance is the norm for teenagers. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, even in Christian homes, where parents lamely shrug their shoulders at their kids’ rebellion and excuse it with, “Well, it’s just a phase they have to go through.” Nonsense! Christian teenagers can and must honor, obey, and respect their parents out of submission to the Lord. When they do this, it will open the door for witness in a world where rebellion and disrespect for parents is the norm. As we examine this commandment, I want to make two main points:

As children, we should honor our parents; as parents, we should live worthily of our children’s honor.

Then I want to discuss under a third heading what children should do when their parents are not deserving of their honor.

1. As children, we should honor our parents.

First, we need to understand what the command means; then, we will look at some ways we can demonstrate our obedience to it.

The meaning of “honor”:

The word translated “honor” is a Hebrew word with a root meaning of “weight” or “heaviness.” It is the same word often translated “glory” in reference to the Lord. To glorify the Lord is to attach the utmost weight or significance to who He is and what He does. It means to assign Him the highest place because He is worthy of it. The opposite of glorifying God is to treat Him lightly, to shrug off Him and His commands as insignificant. Coupled with the idea of weight is that of value, which is the root meaning of the Greek word for honor. Gold and silver are heavy, valuable metals. We say of a valuable man, “He’s worth his weight in gold.”

Applied to parents, to honor them is to have an attitude of respect for them that stems from the fact that we greatly value them and the contribution they’ve made to our lives. To honor our parents is to assign a high place of value to them. This attitude of respect and high esteem will result in loving actions toward them. The motivation for doing this should be to please and glorify the Lord Jesus who set the example of obedience to His earthly parents in order to please His Heavenly Father.

The means of honoring our parents:

(1) When you’re young, you honor your parents by obeying their instruction and submitting to their correction. This is clear in Paul’s linking, “Children obey your parents” with the command to honor them (Eph. 6:1-3). When Paul states, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord,” he does not mean, “Obey your parents only if they are in the Lord” (that is, Christians). Nor does he mean, “Obey your parents when you think their decisions are in line with what you think the Lord wants.” He means, it is your duty in the Lord to obey your parents. The Book of Proverbs, after a brief introduction, begins, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and do not forsake your mother’s teaching; indeed, they are a graceful wreath to your head, and ornaments about your neck” (Prov. 1:8-9).

The only exception to obeying your parents would be if they commanded you to do something that is a clear violation of Scripture. But even then, you must demonstrate to your parents a submissive spirit that seeks to please them. You should respectfully appeal to them and explain your reasons why you cannot obey them in this instance. You should show that it grieves you to have to disobey them. And, you should submit to any punishment they impose without complaint or rebellion, but with a heart of joy in the Lord, that you are counted worthy to suffer for His name. But such times when you must disobey your parents out of obedience to God will probably be rare.

(2) As you grow older, you honor your parents by respecting them, treating them with kindness, and holding their counsel in high regard. It is never right to despise or ridicule your parents, even if they have done something deserving of such treatment. We saw this with Ham, who flippantly looked on his father’s drunkenness and nakedness, rather than respectfully covering him as his two brothers did (Gen. 9:21-24).

There comes a point, of course, where you move out from under your parents’ authority and are no longer obligated to obey them. Wise parents let the reins go gradually, so that a young person assumes more and more responsibility for his own life, until he is on his own. When is that? It is not necessarily at some arbitrary age, such as 18 or even 21. But a general rule of thumb is, if you are chafing under your parents’ authority, you are probably not ready to be out from under it. Your obedience to your parents shows that you are mature enough to live apart from their direct authority, and that you are under the lordship of Christ.

But even when you’re out from under your parents’ authority, you always remain under their counsel. As an adult, you answer directly to God, but it would be foolish to shrug off your parents’ counsel without careful consideration. There are times as a Christian young person when you must follow God’s leading, for example, to go to the mission field, even though your parents (who may even be believers) don’t want you to go. In order to obey God by going to seminary, and later moving to Europe to serve God, Francis Schaeffer had to say to his parents, “I love you, and I’m sorry to make you unhappy, but I am convinced that this is what God wants me to do, and I am going to do it.” His resolute obedience to God was in the end the means of bringing first his father and later his mother to faith in Jesus Christ (told by Edith Schaeffer, Lifelines [Crossway Books], pp. 115-116). But even in going against his parents’ wishes, Schaeffer showed them respect and kindness.

(3) As your parents grow older, you honor them by caring for them and providing for their needs as you are able. Paul directs children and grandchildren to make some return to their aged parents by caring for them and providing for their needs, and adds, “for this is acceptable in the sight of God.” He goes on to say that if we do not provide for our own families (he means both our immediate families and our aged parents), we have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever (1 Tim. 5:4, 8). The best arrangement may or may not be to have an aged parent live in our own homes. Each family has the freedom to determine the specific arrangements under the Lord. But it is not right as Christians to abandon our elderly parents to a nursing home so that we can ignore them. One way we show honor is by giving a person our time. This certainly applies to elderly parents. Our responsibility to honor our parents goes all through life.

There’s a second side to the Fifth Commandment. I can only touch on it briefly:

2. As parents, we should live worthily of our children’s honor.

When Paul gives the command to children to honor and obey their parents, he immediately balances it by commanding the parents (especially, fathers) not to provoke their children to anger, but to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). As I’ll mention in a moment, children must honor their parents whether the parents deserve it or not. But, even so, as parents we must not neglect God’s commands to us to rear our children in His ways. This involves two main things:

(1) As parents, we should be examples of godliness in our homes. Children listen to our lives much more than to our lectures. If we preach Christianity but practice hypocrisy, they will not be inclined to honor either us or the Lord Jesus Christ. Being an example of godliness does not imply perfection, because even godly parents are sinners. But it does mean that we walk in the Spirit, growing in the expression of the fruit of the Spirit in our daily lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Gal. 5:22-23). This includes controlling anger, toward both our mates and children. Being an example of godliness means that when we sin in word or deed toward our family members, we humbly confess that sin and seek forgiveness, both from God and from the ones we wronged. It means that we walk in daily, moment-by-moment submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

(2) As parents, we should train our children in the ways of the Lord. This includes leading our children to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and teaching them the commands and principles of Scripture. It includes commitment to a local church, set times for family Bible reading and prayer, and teaching God’s ways in spur of the moment opportunities. This kind of instruction is not a nice thing to do if you’re so inclined; it is a God-given duty for Christian parents, especially for fathers. We shirk our responsibility as Christian fathers if we are spiritually passive and if we pawn off this duty to our wives or to the church. In some church traditions, the fathers are responsible to catechize their children. I think this is something we Baptists need to consider, where we teach the great doctrines of the faith to our children in the home.

Much more could be said, but I want to devote a few minutes to the question, Should children honor parents who are clearly not worthy of it? And, if so, how?

3. Children should seek to honor parents even if they are not worthy of honor.

The Fifth Commandment does not say, “Honor your parents if they deserve it.” While it is far easier to honor godly parents, we are still obligated to honor our parents, even if they do not deserve it. I realize that some have had parents who have abused them emotionally, physically, and sexually. Some have had drunken or drug-addicted parents who have selfishly neglected their children. Some have been hated and rejected by their parents. But the command still applies, “Honor your father and mother.” Jesus says to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44), which may include your parents. So even if it is difficult, you must work at it. Briefly, here are three biblical principles that apply:

(1) Deal with any bitterness and forgive your parents from your heart. Forgiving those who have sinned against us is not optional. Jesus said that if we do not forgive our fellow men, our heavenly Father will not forgive us (Matt. 6:15). I have trouble fitting that into my theology, but there’s no mistaking the fact that Jesus considered forgiveness a major, mandatory requirement of the Christian life. Granting forgiveness in our hearts does not mean naively restoring trust in the relationship. If your father molested you sexually, forgiving him does not mean trusting your kids to be alone with him. But it does mean rooting out any bitterness toward God, who sovereignly allowed this sin against you, and toward your father who committed it. It also means granting him forgiveness verbally apart from his deserving it the minute he repents (Eph. 4:32). Also, you may have to ask forgiveness for any rebellion or other sins you have committed against your parents, even if they provoked it.

(2) Demonstrate a godly attitude toward your parents. Often when young people from a troubled home get saved, they go back home, often with a well-intended zeal in the Lord, but by their attitude they communicate ingratitude and disrespect for their parents and the way they’ve raised them. They often come across with a spiritual pride that conveys to the parents, “You’ve been terrible, sinful, worldly people who did not raise me properly. But now I’ve found the truth, and I’ve come to set you straight and ask you to repent.” When the parents don’t respond enthusiastically to this message, the young person sniffles about being persecuted for the sake of righteousness or, even worse, is openly defiant or demeaning toward the parents.

The main way a Christian young person should bear witness to his parents is by a godly attitude of honor and submission, even when your parents do things to mistreat or provoke you. If they ask about the changes they see in your behavior, of course you give the glory to Jesus Christ through sensitive verbal witness. But your main witness should be through your godly attitude.

(3) Practice deeds of love and kindness toward your parents, even when they mistreat you, with a view to leading them to Christ. Even if your parents are selfish pagans who treat you like dirt, you are God’s main link to them with the gospel. Even if they never respond or respond with meanness, you can be kind and caring toward them. If you live in another city, you can write to them, send them cards or gifts on special occasions, or call and let them know that you’re thinking of them and that you care. You certainly should pray often for their salvation, since that is their primary need.

This does not mean that it’s necessary to cater to your parents’ every demand or give up a life of your own to make them happy. Some parents are very controlling and would not be happy no matter how much you do for them. But still we must not abandon them and we should seek the Lord for ways we can show them His love and kindness.


A Grimm’s fairy tale tells about an old man who lived with his son and daughter-in-law because he had no where else to go. The old man’s hands trembled. When he ate, he clattered the silverware, often missed his mouth with the spoon, and dribbled some of his food on the tablecloth. The daughter-in-law hated having him there because he interfered with her right to happiness. So she and her husband took the old man gently but firmly and led him to a corner of the kitchen. There they set him on a stool and gave him his food in an earthenware bowl. From then on he always ate in the corner, blinking at the table with wistful eyes.

One day his hands trembled more than usual and he dropped the bowl, which broke. “If you are a pig,” said the daughter-in-law, “you must eat out of a trough.” So they made him a little wooden trough, and he got his meals in that.

This couple had a four-year-old son they were quite fond of. One night the father noticed the boy playing intently with some bits of wood and he asked what he was doing. “I’m making a trough,” he said, smiling for approval, “to feed you and Mamma out of when I get big.”

The man and his wife looked at each other for a while and didn’t say anything. Then they cried a little. Then they went to the corner and took the old man by the arm and led him back to the table. They sat him in a comfortable chair and fed him his dinner on a plate. From then on nobody scolded him when he clattered or spilled or broke things. (Told by Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain.)

If we dishonor our parents, we will reap dishonor ourselves. More than that, we will undermine the foundations of society. Wherever you’re at in life, I ask, “Are you keeping the Fifth Commandment?” If you are, it will go well with you and you will be blessed by God. It is the first commandment with a promise.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does a child dishonor abusive parents by reporting them to proper authorities? Why/why not?
  2. Does honoring our parents imply never confronting their sins? How can we know what to accept and what to confront?
  3. What guidelines apply in determining whether an elderly parent should live with you?
  4. What does biblical forgiveness imply in practice?

Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Children, Christian Home, Fathers, Mothers, Parenting, Spiritual Life

Lesson 13: Shepherding Your Family (John 10:1-18)

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Have you ever had a job where you did not have a clear job description? You knew that you would be answering to the boss, but you weren’t sure exactly what you would be answering for? That can create a lot of anxiety!

I find that many men have a nagging anxiety about the matter of leading their families. They know that they are supposed to lead their families spiritually, but they’re not sure what that means or how to go about it. They know that they will answer to the Lord for this important task, but they feel very uncertain and uncomfortable about doing it.

The task could be summed up under the phrase, “Shepherding your family.”

Your job is to be the family shepherd, under the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ.

If you wonder how to go about your job, look at how the Chief Shepherd does His job and imitate Him. He tells us about His role as the Good Shepherd in John 10:1-18.

The context of this discourse is Jesus’ controversy with the Jewish religious leaders over the matter of His healing on the Sabbath the man born blind (John 9). These Jewish leaders should have been faithfully shepherding God’s people, but instead they were simply exercising their authority with no concern for the sheep. They would put out of the synagogue people like this man born blind or anyone else who confessed Jesus to be the Christ (9:22). But they were thieves and robbers who were using the flock for their own advantage rather than sacrificing themselves for the advantage of the sheep. Jesus stands in stark contrast to them as the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep (10:11). By studying Jesus’ words, we can learn seven principles for shepherding our families. I can only touch on each one and leave you to explore on your own in more depth.

1. To shepherd your family, make sure that you’ve entered through the door, and then lead your children through the door, who is Christ (10:9).

True heart conversion to Jesus Christ, not just church attendance or outward religion, is the prerequisite of leading your family spiritually. The Pharisees claimed to be spiritual leaders, but they had not been born again (John 3, Nicodemus). They had not entered through Jesus Christ into the personal experience of eternal life. Thus they were hypocrites. Nothing will turn your children away from the faith more effectively than hypocrisy on your part. You must really know Christ as your Savior through personal faith. You must be growing in personal reality with Him.

Then, you must seek to lead your children through the same door of salvation that you’ve entered. Salvation is not just a decision to “pray and ask Jesus into your heart.” Salvation means that God has brought conviction of sin, a sense of need for the Savior, and turning from sin and embracing Christ by faith. When God saves a person, he has a new heart. If your children are truly born again, there will be evidence of spiritual life in them. They will desire to feed on God’s Word and grow in their relationship with Jesus. They will be sensitive to their own sin, and willing to turn from it and grow in holiness. Pray together with your wife for the genuine conversion of your children, and teach them the necessity of it.

2. To shepherd your family, work at knowing them on an individual basis (10:3-5, 14)

You’re probably thinking, “I know all my kids: Christa, Joy, and Daniel. What’s next?” But knowing a person is a much more in depth process than just knowing their names. When the Hebrews talked about a person’s name, they were referring to the whole person: their personalities, likes, and dislikes, etc. Each child is different. Each one can only be known individually, not on a group basis. By the way, 1 Peter 3:7 exhorts husbands to dwell with their wives “according to knowledge” (lit.). This means taking the time to listen and getting to know your wife well.

This implies spending quantity time, not just quality time, with your family. When the children are young, you must be there to play with them and read to them. Include them in your tasks, like shopping or chores. Influence always comes through relationship. You cannot properly discipline your kids if your relationship is distant or strained because of anger or misunderstandings.

Note that the sheep know the sound of the Shepherd’s voice, and they follow Him on this account (10:4). What does your voice sound like at home? Is it cheerful, pleasant, and inviting? Or is it harsh, angry, and repelling? The general tone of our voices should be that of love, tenderness, and warmth. It should say to your children, “Come to me, because I love you and care about you.”

3. To shepherd your family, you must set the example (10:4).

The good shepherd goes before his flock, and they follow him. He doesn’t get behind them and drive them with a whip. He goes before them, showing them the way. You cannot lead your family where you yourself are not walking. If you want your children to be overcoming their sins, you must be overcoming your sins, beginning on the thought level. If you want your children to speak kindly to one another, you must speak kindly to your wife and to them. If you want your children to be quick to forgive, you must be quick to forgive. If you want them to be cheerful helpers around the home, you must be a cheerful helper around the home. Simple, huh? Simple to understand, hard to practice!

4. To shepherd your family, you must lead them to the pastures of God’s Word (10:9-10).

Note where the shepherd leads his flock: to abundant pastures where they will be well-fed (10:9, 10). This means that you must lead your family into God’s Word. When they’re young, limit the time and focus on the stories, not on Romans. As they get older, they can handle more solid food. Consistency is more important than anything else. Pick a time and try to do it as often as you can. For us, it is right after dinner. But it never has been automatic. You’ve got to keep at it. You want to communicate by example that God’s Word and prayer are vital. Also, we have read “The Global Prayer Digest” to try to communicate that taking the gospel to those who have yet to hear is important.

5. To shepherd your family, you must guard them from danger (10:10-13).

The clear message is that it sometimes costs the shepherd dearly to carry out this task, but he does it because he cares about the sheep. The hireling only cares about himself and is not concerned about the sheep.

It’s getting late at night and there is a knock at your door. You open it a crack and see a sinister guy who looks like he hangs out at the local porno shop. He says, “I’d like to come in and teach your kids about how much fun it is to have sex with different partners, including men with men and women with women. I’d like to show them how to make funny comments that put down others. I’d like to teach them how to disrespect their parents and view them as stupid and out-of-touch with reality. May I come in?” You’d rightfully slam the door in his face before he even finished speaking!

And yet many parents invite him in and give him free rein. His name is TV, and he also goes now by the nicknames, Video games and Internet. You’ve got to guard your children from these evil influences and teach them about spiritual truth and error. Again, you can only do it if you are guarding yourself from the same evil influences. If you are secretly indulging in pornography or even lusting after the women who parade around on the commercials or TV shows, you cannot lead your children into God’s holy ways.

6. To shepherd your family, you must serve them (10:11, 15, 17-18).

Jesus was referring to His own sacrificial death on the cross, and we can never imitate Him in this. And yet His laying down His life for us is an example. He calls us daily to take up our cross and follow Him, promising that if we lose our lives for His sake, we will find them, but if we seek to preserve them for ourselves, we will lose them. By serving your family, I do not mean doing for your kids what they need to learn to do for themselves and for the sake of the family. Rather, I mean putting their best interests above your own selfish pursuits. It may take shape in little things, like putting down the newspaper to listen to your child or help him with his homework. It may mean sacrificing what you wanted to do on your Saturday in order to do something with the whole family.

The emphasis here is on Jesus’ willingly laying down His life for us. Sometimes we sacrifice for our families, but we make sure that they know what a great sacrifice it was! We should sacrifice ourselves cheerfully out of love. The well-being of the sheep was Jesus’ concern, even above saving His own life. I’ve seen dads who use their authority to make the family serve them. That is a sure way of raising selfish children, because you are modeling selfishness. Your kids should see you willingly sacrificing yourself, not just for the family, but also for the Lord’s purpose in the world. Model for your kids the joy of serving Jesus Christ.

7. To shepherd your family, tenderly care for each one, even if he or she is not being especially lovable (10:12-13).

The hireling sees the flock in trouble and takes off. He doesn’t care about the flock, but only about himself. The Good Shepherd stays with them through the difficulties and helps bring them through to a place of safety and security again.

It’s fairly easy to shepherd your family when your wife is being sweet and your kids say, “Sure, Dad, we’d be glad to clean up our rooms!” But the rest of the time (which may be most of the time), we still must care for them as the Good Shepherd cares for us. Of course His care often involves correction, but it is never harsh or demeaning correction. He always corrects us for our good. The goal is to see our wives and children without spiritual blemish, holy and blameless, growing in personal and spiritual maturity (Eph. 5:27; 6:4). The only way that I know of to love my family when they aren’t being especially lovable is to focus on my responsibility, to love them as Christ loves His church. Ask yourself, “How can I best love my wife or children in this situation?”

I once heard the late Joe Bayly speak on the subject of “Enjoying Your Children.” He was a Christian leader and writer from the Chicago area. He lost three of his children in death, and compassion and tenderness oozed out of him. He told about a time, back in the rebellious early 1970’s, when one of his sons rebelled against his conservative evangelical upbringing. He grew his hair long and grew a beard. He was living in a run-down flop house, where kids would drop in and crash for a time before moving on.

Late one night, Bayly got a call where the caller identified himself as a police office and said that they had his son in custody. Bayly got dressed and went down to the station, but they had not heard of his son. He made the rounds to several other police precinct stations, but no one had any knowledge of his son being in custody. He finally concluded that it must have been a prank.

Before heading home, he stopped by the flop house where his son was living. He stepped over several who were strewn out in their sleeping bags on the floor, and quietly opened the door of his son’s room. He was there, sleeping. Before he left, Bayly leaned over and gently kissed his son on the cheek.

Bayly said, “My son is a pastor now. He told me not long ago, ‘Dad, do you know what turned me around?’” Bayly said, “No, son, what?” “It was that night when you came into my room and kissed me in the middle of the night. You didn’t think that I was awake, but I was. I thought, ‘If my dad loves me that much, I’d better get my life together with the Lord.’” That’s the kind of love that we need to show to our kids, even when they aren’t being especially lovable.

Our goal is that each of our family members live to the glory of God. That’s a very different goal than using Christ to make us happy. God will be glorified as the nations hear and respond to the gospel. Thus we should view our children as arrows (Ps. 127:4) to be aimed at the enemy. Instill in your kids a heart for world missions, and then release them to that great task.


Where do you start? That depends on where you’re at now. If you don’t have a consistent quiet time with the Lord, begin there. Joining a Forum of Four might help you to be accountable. If you’ve never read the Bible and prayed together as a family, ask your wife and kids to hold you accountable to do that at least four nights each week. Also, begin the habit of praying with your family at other times of need.

Finally, don’t neglect to have fun together as a family. But, you’re already doing that, or you wouldn’t be here! Keep it up!

Copyright 2001, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Home, Fathers, Mothers, Parenting, Spiritual Life

New Year's Messages

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These New Year's messages were preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship through the years. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.

Two additional New Year's messages may be located in other message series:

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New Years [1993]: Putting My Times In God’s Hand (Psalm 31:14-15a)

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December 27, 1992

One of the realities of our modern, fast-paced world is stress. We constantly hear of people being stressed out or going through burnout. The Holmes-Rahe stress test assigns points for various traumatic situations in life. The death of a spouse rates 100. The Christmas season rates 12 points. If you took a vacation at Christmas, throw in 13 more points!

I read about a woman who was the classic “Type A,” always under self-imposed stress. Her friend, who was determined to get her to relax, invited her to dinner and, while she was busy fixing dinner, urged the harried woman to watch a video on stress management. Fifteen minutes later she came into the kitchen, handed her friend the tape, and said, “It was good, but I don’t need it.”

“But it’s a 70-minute video,” the well-meaning friend replied. “You couldn’t have watched the whole thing.” “Yes, I did,” the stressed out one replied. “I put it on fast-forward.” (Reader’s Digest [7/90], p. 68.)

We may wonder if the Bible, written thousands of years before many of the stress-inducing factors of our modern world, could have much to say about how to deal with stress. But David went through stress like few of us have ever experienced. He wrote about it in Psalm 31. Most of us have never been under the stress of having someone determined to kill us. But David had a whole team conspiring together on the project (31:4, 13)! They had slandered him and had managed to turn friends and neighbors against him (31:11). Furthermore, David could see a connection between his current troubles and his own sin (31:10; NIV, “affliction” = iniquity or guilt), so he had to wrestle with guilt on top of everything else. But we do know that it was written when David was in the pressure-cooker! He tells us how to deal with stress.

Whatever stresses you face now or in the coming year, David faced equal or greater ones. This psalm isn’t coming to you out of the ivory tower of a king, but from the crucible of a man who has been there. In 31:14-15a, David gives us the key to handling stress in our lives: “But as for me, I trust in You, O Lord, I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in Your hand.” To personalize it,

My response to stress should be personal trust in the sovereign, personal God.

You will note that 31:15 refers to ...

1. “My times”—The reality of stress.

Both David’s times and ours are marked by instability. The word “times” refers to the uncontrollable changes of life. John Calvin commented: “He does not use the plural number [“times”], in my opinion, without reason; but rather to mark the variety of casualties by which the life of man is usually harassed” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Associated Publishers & Authors], 2:351). The word causes us to reflect upon the instability and changeableness of life. We may think we control our times, but we don’t. One day David was a powerful king; the next he was running for his life from his rebellious son.

We never know what stresses a new year will bring. A few pressure-points are predictable, but most are not. The predictable changes relate to the facts of aging and changes in the life-cycle. For example, some of you will be graduating from high school or college and starting a career. Others will be entering upon married life for the first time this year. Others will be having their first child. For others, their first child will be entering school. Still others will be the parents of a teenager for the first time this year. Some of you may be waving good-bye as the last one leaves the nest. Others may be facing retirement. All of those changes are predictable, but they will cause stress and will require some adjustments.

Other changes we face will be quite unpredictable and unannounced. They will barge into our lives like an intruder in the night. It may be your own or a family member’s sudden loss of health. It could be the death of a family member or even your own death. Perhaps an aging parent will require large chunks of your time and energy.

Some may lose their jobs, and with it, a large part of their identity. That change in life can put tremendous stress not only on the individual, but also on the family. Did you know that 85% of men who are unemployed for nine months or more divorce? Some of you may find yourself going through the pain of a divorce that you never asked for or planned upon. Some may be hit with severe financial set-backs which force an unplanned move to another locale. But whether predictable or unpredictable, the new year holds changes that will produce stress. I want to make three observations about stress from this psalm before we move on:

A. The time to prepare for stress is before it hits.

It’s obvious from Psalm 31 that David knew God in a very personal, practical and thorough way before he got into the crisis that prompted the psalm. Note the many attributes of God David recites throughout the psalm: God is a refuge and shelter (1, 19, 20). He is righteous (1) and will judge righteously (23). He is a rock of strength (2, 3). He hears and answers prayer (2, 22). He is a stronghold and fortress (2, 3), David’s source of strength (4). He is the God of truth (5) and of lovingkindness (7, 16, 21). He is all-knowing (7) and gracious (9) in that He forgives and doesn’t cast off the rejected (implied in 9-13). He has unlimited storehouses of goodness for those who fear Him (19), even if they are going through the worst of trials.

David didn’t learn all that about God out of the blue in the middle of this calamity, although he no doubt deepened his knowledge of God through the distress. David had begun to know God through His Word (Ps. 19) as a boy tending his father’s sheep. Even then God knew David as a man after His own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). So when the crisis hit, David had resources in God to lean on.

Proverbs 1:20-33 also makes this point: The time to get wisdom is before the calamity strikes. Otherwise, if we wait to call out for wisdom when we’re in the crunch, wisdom will laugh at us. If you’re not in a crisis, it’s time to sink down roots in the Lord that will enable you to weather the inevitable storms that will come. Spend time alone with God and His Word, feeding your soul. Let His Word confront your life with sin that needs to be dealt with. You’ll be ready for the crunch.

If you’re already in a crisis and you don’t know God as David did, seek Him like you never have before! He is gracious and may meet you there, if your heart is right. But the time to prepare for stress is before it hits.

B. Even if our stress is the consequence of sin, we can take refuge in God.

David recognized that, in part, his own sin was behind the crisis he was in (31:10). This leads me to think that the psalm was written in connection with Absalom’s rebellion, which was a consequence of David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:10-11). God will forgive our sin if we confess and forsake it (Prov. 28:13), but He doesn’t necessarily remove the consequences (Gal. 6:7-8). But David’s experience shows that even if our calamity is the direct result of our sin, we can still run to God for refuge and comfort and know that He will receive us!

It’s significant that David’s enemies were still condemning him long after God had forgiven him. They were talking against him, making his name a reproach (31:1, “ashamed”; 11, “reproach”; 13, “slander”; 17, “put to shame”; 20, “strife of tongues”). No doubt they were calling him a hypocrite: He claimed to follow God, but he was guilty of murder and adultery. And, what’s more, the charges were true! But David’s enemies didn’t know the sincerity of David’s repentance or the magnitude of God’s grace.

We must never condone sin, but we must be careful not to judge or reject repentant sinners. Thank God that He is gracious and through the blood of Jesus forgives all our sin, or which of us could be here today!  Yes, in His righteousness He often makes us suffer the temporal consequences of our sin. But we need to experience and model the fact that even if our stress is the result of our sin, we can take refuge in our gracious God.

C. God will never allow us to go through more stress than we can bear if we trust in Him.

“God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted [or, ‘tried’] beyond what you are able” (1 Cor. 10:13)! Though David’s trial was terrifying, so that he despaired even of life itself (31:13), God gave him strength to endure. God isn’t into easy solutions. He doesn’t usually remove the trial the instant we seek Him. But none who have waited on Him have found Him to fail. “He gives more grace when the burdens grow greater!”

It’s only when we trust God in the midst of severe distress that we prove His faithfulness in our own experience. Often it’s the waiting for God to deliver us that’s the most difficult thing. Think of Joseph, languishing for the better part of his twenties in the Egyptian dungeon, his feet in irons, never seeing the daylight. Why? Because he obeyed the Lord by resisting the advances of Potiphar’s wife! Why didn’t God answer his prayers? We know the outcome, but for years, Joseph didn’t know that one day he would be released from prison and promoted to second in the land. But because Joseph trusted in God, he could later say to his brothers, “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

Stress will be a reality for every one of us in the coming year. But if we prepare for it in advance by sinking roots with God; if we take refuge in Him, even if the stress is a result of our sin; and, if we remember that God will never allow us to go through more stress than we can handle, we will grow stronger through it.

But there’s a second, vital factor that we need to keep in mind about stress, as seen in 31:15:

2. “God’s hand”—The reality of the sovereign, personal God.

David’s “times” may have been unstable and changing; but David’s God was stable and unchanging (31:2, 3, “rock,” “fortress”). And David’s times were in the hands of David’s God. David was not subject to the whims of those who sought his life. His life was in God’s hands, and he was invincible until God wanted him to die. One of the most comforting truths to remember in trials is that they are under the control of the sovereign, personal God.

A. The God who holds our times in His hands is a sovereign God.

Daniel 2:21 uses this same Hebrew word for “times”: “It is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings ....” Our God is not sitting on the edge of heaven, biting His nails as He sees the rebellion of the human race unfold. As David wrote about God’s attitude toward rebellious world rulers, “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord scoffs at them” (Ps. 2:4).

God has a sovereign plan for all of history. He is working all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11) so that even the wrath of man will praise Him (Ps. 76:10). We can know that when tragedy strikes us, God was not asleep or on vacation. His sovereignty is a great comfort in a time of trial.

I read (“Tabletalk” [11/92], pp. 18-19) of a pastor and his wife who were called home from a summer vacation with the news that their four-year-old, who was staying with friends, had been flown to a pediatric intensive care unit. The diagnosis: acute lymphocytic leukemia. That same summer, their newborn underwent surgery to repair a cleft lip and the wife was laid low with a degenerated disc.

The pastor shared how his knowledge of God’s loving sovereignty was a rock of refuge to him in this crisis. But he also told of how many people recommended to him Rabbi Harold Kushner’s best-seller, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, whose thesis is that God is good, but not sovereign and all-powerful. Thus God can’t help all the suffering that is happening in the world. The pastor wrote, “... incredibly, suffering people are supposed to find comfort in this. Am I really supposed to be relieved to know that there are forces in this world outside the control of God?” God’s sovereignty is a tremendous comfort: Your times and mine are in His mighty hand!

B. The God who holds our time in his hands is personal God.

“You are my God” (31:14). The flavor of the whole psalm is personal and intimate. Although God is sovereign, He is also personal and can be known intimately. A lot of people think that the sovereignty of God means that He is cold and distant. They have a deterministic view of life. They’re like the guy who strongly believed in predestination, who fell down the stairs. He got up, dusted himself off and said, “I’m glad that’s over with.”

But note 31:7: “You have seen my affliction; You have known the troubles of my soul.” God is not severe and distant, off in some corner of the universe saying, “I ordained it; now grit your teeth and endure it.” God is sovereign, but He’s also personal and caring. If you’ve trusted in Christ, you can call Him “my God,” because He knows you and you know Him. Even during trials, you can know that “He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).

You may be thinking at this point, “Well, then, if God is sovereign and if my times are in His hands, then there’s nothing left for me to do. Whatever will be, will be.” Not so. There is a third element. “My times” points to the reality and instability of stress. “God’s hand” points to the reality and stability of the sovereign, personal God. “But as for me, I trust in You” points to:

3. My response—The reality of personal trust.

Personal trust in the sovereign, personal God gives us inner stability in the midst of outer instability. Trust is the vital link that connects God’s sovereign love with my distress. When I trust God in the midst of a stressful situation, He doesn’t usually remove the source of the stress immediately, but He gives His stability in the midst of the crisis. That’s where David was at when he wrote this psalm--still in the crisis, but experiencing God’s stability in the midst of it because he was trusting in God.

There is a sense, of course, in which your times are in God’s hand whether you trust in Him or not. But that’s not the sense in which David’s times were in God’s hand. David’s times were in God’s hand because David deliberately determined to put them there! It wasn’t an automatic response. The word “I” (31:14) is strongly adversative and emphatic. David is saying, “No matter what my enemies may do to me, no matter whether former friends abandon me, for my part, I am going to trust the Lord.” It was a personal, conscious, deliberate choice. Trust always is.

Note 31:2-3: “Be to me a rock of strength ... for You are my rock ....” That sounds like doubletalk, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Notice the two words, “to me.” There is the key! There is personal trust. “What You are in Your very nature, O God, a rock and a stronghold, be that to me in my current crisis!” David is taking the revealed character of God and bringing it down into his own experience in a personal, conscious, deliberate manner. That is personal trust.

Maybe you’re thinking, “I’ve tried that, but I just keep taking my problems back on myself and getting anxious all over again!” Welcome to fallen, self-reliant humanity! Guess what? David did the same thing! Derek Kidner (Psalms [IVP], 1:130) observes that this psalm is unusual in that it makes the journey from anguish to assurance twice over: In 31:6-8 David reaches a point of calm trust, but then he plunges back into anxiety in 31:9-13 before reaffirming his trust in 31:14-24. The psalms are so true to life!

Personal trust is like that—you wrestle with your anxieties and finally cast them on the Lord and experience His peace. Then you take the whole thing back on yourself and struggle again with your fears. But then you focus on God and who He is and deliberately affirm your trust in Him all over again. But the point is, trust is not passive resignation to fate. Trust is actively, personally laying hold of the character of God as revealed in His Word and applying it to your particular crisis. When you know this God—the God of David—as your God, then you experience His stability in the midst of unstable circumstances. You can handle whatever stress comes upon you because you have placed your times into the hand of this sovereign, personal God.


It’s interesting that Jonah echoed a phrase from this psalm when he cried out to the Lord from the belly of the great fish (Jon. 2:8; Ps. 31:6a). Jeremiah, whose message was rejected and whose life was often threatened, often borrowed another phrase from the psalm as his motto (Jer. 6:25; 20:3, 10; 46:5; 49:29; Lam. 2:22; Ps. 31:13). As an old man, the author of Psalm 71 (perhaps David himself), took refuge in God by praying the words of Psalm 31:1-3. But most significantly, the Lord Jesus had meditated on this psalm so often that His final words from the cross were a quote from Psalm 31:5: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). He endured the supreme stress of bearing our sins by entrusting Himself to the sovereign, personal God! So must we!

Some of you parents have had the experience of taking your young toddler into a swimming pool. The water is over his head, even in the shallow end, but you’re holding him up. But as you go out into the deeper water, the child panics and he clings to you all the more tightly. You’re still touching the bottom and holding him up, but the deeper water scares him more than the shallow water did, even though the shallow water was deep enough to drown him.

This year, some of you are going to feel like you’re in over your head. The stress will seem overwhelming and you’ll feel like you’re out of control. Guess what? We’re never in control, even when we proudly think that we are! God wants us to see that we’re always in over our heads! We’re dependent on Him for the next breath we take and for our daily food. Our response to stress, whether it comes from the big crisis or from the daily routine, should be consciously, deliberately to put our trust in the sovereign, personal God who is never in over His head. We need to put our times in His hand.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is God’s sovereignty a source of comfort or consternation to you? Why?
  2. How can a person who lacks faith increase in faith?
  3. Agree/disagree: Burnout is evidence of a lack of trust in God?
  4. Is it true that God will never give us more stress than we can bear? What are the implications of this?

Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Cultural Issues, Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life, Suffering, Trials, Persecution

New Years [1994]: People Of Truth In An Age Of Deception (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus)

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December 26, 1993

The late Professor Allan Bloom began his best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind ([Simon and Schuster], 1987, pp. 25-26), by stating,

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about.... The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating.... The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.

The view that there is no absolute truth pervades our society. A recent Gallup poll conducted for Americans United for Life found nearly 70 percent agree with the statement: “There are few moral absolutes; what is right or wrong usually varies from situation to situation.” Only 27 percent disagreed. And while 50 percent were troubled about the influence of religious fundamentalism, only 36 percent expressed concern about secular humanism’s influence (cited in Leadership [Fall, 1992], p. 133).

If I could encourage you to read only two books besides the Bible in the coming New Year, they would be John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel (Crossway Books) and David Wells’ No Place for Truth (Eerdmans). The second book is a bit more difficult because it’s written from a more scholarly point of view. Both books show that we live in an age of relativity, where the notion of absolute truth has gone the way of the dinosaur and where the evangelical church is rapidly becoming like the world in diminishing the central role of truth.

MacArthur develops a parallel between the current scene and the “Downgrade” controversy of Spurgeon’s final years, about 100 years ago. Wells comes at the subject from a broader historical and sociological perspective. But both men show that the church today has minimized biblical truth in favor of whatever works to draw people in. To do this, the church has adopted a marketing approach, where you give the customer what he wants and tiptoe around difficult issues such as sin, hell, judgment, and other politically incorrect topics. The measure of success in the local church has become “is the church growing?” rather than “is the church faithful to the truth?”

The goal, of course, is a good one: To bring people to know Christ and to become a part of His church. But both MacArthur and Wells show that the theologically liberal modernists of 100 years ago had exactly the same goal. The modernists didn’t set out to deny the faith. They were afraid that if they didn’t make the gospel message “relevant” to their culture, they would lose people. Even so, the church growth movement today is seeking to make the faith relevant to baby boomers and others who have been turned off. To do this, they use modern marketing and management strategies and offer short, uplifting, psychologized sermons that play down truth or doctrine, with the goal of making people feel good. But the end result is the same: By minimizing biblical truth, you end up selling out the heart of the faith.

Today I’d like to explore the proposition that

Since God is the author of truth, His people must be people of truth.

I’m going to limit myself to Paul’s final three letters, called the “pastoral epistles,” 1 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Timothy (in chronological order). The concept of God being the author of truth and His people being people of truth runs throughout the Bible, of course. But it is a central theme in these letters which Paul wrote to his two faithful understudies who were seeking to establish the church in pagan cultures. False teachers were threatening the fledgling churches from within. Paul puts a decided emphasis on teaching sound doctrine and refuting false doctrine. In light of where our American culture and the American church are at, there is nothing more important for us to understand and follow in the New Year and in the rest of this decade. To swim upstream against our relativistic culture, we must understand that ...

1. God is the author of truth.

Note Titus 1:1-3. God is the God of truth. By His very nature, He cannot lie. Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44). When we talk about the God of truth, we are not talking about the word “god” or the idea “god,” but about “the God who is there,” to use Francis Schaeffer’s term. He is the God who has always existed and who created everything else. All truth stems from Him. Truth is thus related to who God is as an objective, living Being, and to the universe He has created. In other words, truth is not a subjective experience inside a person’s head. Truth is objective and absolute because it stems from God who is objectively existent and absolutely true. There are two important facts concerning God’s truth:

A. God’s truth has been revealed to the human race.

It has been manifested in His word (Titus 1:3), both the living Word (Jesus) and the written Word.

(1) God’s truth centers in the person of God’s Son. The word of the gospel which Paul preached was revealed at the proper time in the person of Jesus Christ. In 1 Timothy 2:6 Paul refers to the man Christ Jesus, “who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony borne at the proper time” (same Greek phrase). In 2 Timothy 1:12, Paul significantly affirms not that he knew what he believed (although he did), but rather that he knew whom he believed. His faith was in a person, a man, born in time of a woman, who gave Himself at a point in history as the ransom for our sins.

It is important in our day that we affirm and proclaim that God’s truth centers in the historical person of God’s Son, Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and person are revealed to us in the Gospel records. He is not a mythical figure. He was born, lived, died, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven as is recorded in those accounts.

I emphasize this because the words “Jesus” and “Christ” have become meaningless, empty terms in our modern world. Several of the cults and some of the New Agers claim to be followers of Jesus or to believe in “the Christ,” but it is not the Jesus Christ of the Bible and of history they believe in, but a Jesus of their own imagination. And quite often evangelicals invite people to receive Jesus as their Savior when those people know almost nothing of who He is. But our faith does not rest on “Jesus as you conceive Him to be,” but rather on the Jesus who lived in history, revealed in God’s Word.

(2) God’s truth is contained in the words of Scripture. God has revealed Himself verbally or propositionally in understandable language, recorded by His prophets and apostles in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. In these pastoral epistles, Paul puts an emphasis on the verbal nature of God’s revelation (see 1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:15; 3:15-16; 4:2-4; Titus 1:3; 1:9).

This is important to affirm because doctrine or theology is being treated as unimportant in our day. I find it interesting that I preached the basic content of this sermon on New Year’s Day, 1984. At that time, my main concern was those who called themselves evangelicals but who denied the absolute veracity of Scripture. While those false teachers are still around, a decade later the main way Satan is attacking truth is by elevating “what works” over what is true.

David Wells observes (pp. 6, 13) that while formerly a pastor’s main task was to be a truth broker, who explained and proclaimed God’s truth to His people, today it has shifted so that pastors have become managers of the small enterprise called the church and therapists who help people feel good about themselves.

The Apostle Paul always saw proper theology as the foundation for proper living. The first sections of Romans, Ephesians, and Colossians, as well as his emphasis in the Pastoral epistles on “sound doctrine” and teaching (1 Tim. 1:10; 4:6; 6:3; 2 Tim. 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1, 2, 7) show that biblical faith is concerned with truth as contained in the words of Scripture.

The great theologians, Calvin, Luther, and Edwards, were all pastors; the great pastors, Matthew Henry, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones were all theologians. But in our day, with a few exceptions, the most well-known pastors are theologically shallow. In fact, they make fun of pastors who emphasize theology as being out of touch with and unable to relate to the modern world.

John MacArthur (p. 192) tells of a friend of his who wanted to learn how the so-called “user-friendly” churches were integrating doctrine into their ministries. He sent for a tape catalog, asking for tapes that focused on biblical doctrine. He discovered that by a ratio of more than 30 to 1, the sermons preached in that church dealt with contemporary topics, psychological issues, personal relationships, motivational themes, etc. Messages dealing with doctrine or even sermons based on biblical texts were rare. Most of the messages would have been immediately transferrable to any context, such as a sales convention, a school assembly, or a businessmen’s luncheon. If they used Scripture, it was only for illustrative purposes. Doctrine is simply a non-issue with these growing churches that are held up as models for other pastors to follow.

(1) God’s truth centers in the person of His Son; and, (2) is contained in the words of Scripture.

(3) God’s truth is preserved and upheld by the church. Note 1 Timothy 3:15: the church is “the pillar and support of the truth.” We need to remember that when Paul wrote Romans and his other great theological treatises, he wasn’t writing primarily for seminary professors, so that they would have some good material for their graduate seminars. He wrote these things under the inspiration of God’s Spirit for common, everyday people in the churches--people with the same kind of struggles and problems you and I face. Knowing these great truths is the foundation we need to live properly in this fallen world. To say it another way, sound theology is always the basis for sound living.

And it is the church that is to preserve, uphold, and defend these great truths of the Bible. By minimizing biblical truth and putting the emphasis on subjective experience, we’re not proclaiming to our lost culture what it needs to hear from God and, as Wells states, we’re in danger of no longer being historic Protestants (p. 102).

This hit me with force several years ago when I was studying the so-called Christian “recovery” movement. I was reading material from a program at the church of probably the most well-known radio pastor in America. The thrust of the material was not on trusting in Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture--the cross of Christ was not mentioned, let alone central--but rather on trusting in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

There were Bible verses tacked on to the Steps to make them look Christian. There were statements like, “The 12 Steps work. Trust in the Steps. Work the Steps.” While they used the name “Jesus” for the “Higher Power,” it became clear to me that “Jesus” (however you conceive Him to be!) wasn’t the critical factor; the 12 Steps were the thing. You could make Jesus or Buddha or some statue on your shelf your Higher Power. The name “Jesus” makes the program sound Christian. But the critical factor isn’t the Jesus of the Bible. It’s the 12 Steps.

What scares me is that these kinds of programs are in most of the large evangelical churches of our day, promoted as being Christian, when in fact they are simply the world’s methods with a veneer of Christianity. The church in America has abandoned God’s truth in favor of the world’s pop-psychology! But we’re the ones who are supposed to uphold God’s truth in the face of secularism and false religions.

A. God’s truth has been revealed to the human race. (1) It centers on the person of God’s Son; (2) is contained in the words of Scripture; and, (3) is preserved and upheld by the church.

B. God’s truth is knowable and must be believed.

(1) God’s truth is knowable. By that I mean that God has communicated with us in intelligible language we can comprehend. You don’t need to be initiated into the inner circle to grasp some hidden meaning. This is not to say that there are not deep and difficult doctrines in the Bible. Nor is it to say that the natural man can comprehend the things of the Spirit.

But notice the emphasis on the knowledge of the truth in these epistles (see 1 Tim. 2:4; 4:3; 2 Tim. 2:25; 3:7; Titus 1:1). The fact that we can know the truth points also to the fact that there is a body of unchanging, absolute truth that is knowable. While we need to avoid the spiritual pride of insisting that our view on non-central doctrines is the only right view, we can have the quiet assurance of knowing that we know God’s truth on the major issues that matter, not just about God, but also about godliness (Titus 1:1). And, we can teach truth as truth, not as up for grabs, to our children and to people who are groping for answers about life and godliness.

(2) God’s truth must be believed. (Note 1 Tim. 2:7; 4:3, 6; 2 Tim. 1:12; Titus 1:1). Knowing and believing the truth go together. Knowing the truth is not just a mental thing. You must also commit yourself to the truth by faith. This isn’t a blind leap. Faith is always based on the knowledge of certain content. You can’t honestly believe in Jesus if you know nothing about Him. But there comes a point at which you have enough information and yet there are still unresolved issues. At that point, you will not know more until you believe.

For example, let’s say you have come to know through reading the Bible that Jesus Christ is uniquely the Son of God; you have read of His miracles and His teaching; you realize that there is solid evidence that He was raised bodily from the dead; and you know that you have sinned and that Jesus died to pay the penalty you deserve to pay. At that point, you need to make a faith commitment to follow Jesus Christ or you will not gain further knowledge. You will have unanswered questions about difficult issues all your life. The point of God’s revealing His truth to us is not to fill our heads, but to change our lives. And that change comes about when we repent of our sins and trust in Christ as Savior.

It’s kind of like marriage. You can read books and interview married people and learn a lot about marriage. You can get to know a potential marriage partner very well. But if you really want to learn about marriage, at some point you have to make a commitment (based on reasonable knowledge!). That commitment changes your life forever. You go on growing in your knowledge of that person.

Christianity, then, is not just a set of doctrines, although it is not void of doctrines. It is a personal knowledge of the living God as He has revealed Himself in His Son and in His written Word. We enter that relationship of knowing both God and His truth through faith in the truth He has revealed as it relates to His Son. The bottom line is:

2. God’s people must be people of truth.

We must think in line with biblical truth, speak God’s truth, and live in obedience to it. Paul begins First Timothy by warning Timothy of those who misuse Scripture and go astray (1 Tim. 1:6-11). Throughout these letters are warnings of those who have turned away from God’s truth (1 Tim. 4:1-3; 6:3-5, 20-21; 2 Tim. 2:16-18, 23-26; 3:1-8, 13; 4:3-4, 15; Titus 1:9-16; 3:10-11). God’s truth is addressed to the mind, but it ought to affect speech and behavior, so that God’s people live or “adorn” the doctrine of God in every respect (Titus 3:10).

The danger we face today, if Wells and MacArthur are right (and I’m convinced they are) is that we as evangelicals have set aside truth as the center and replaced it with personal experience. Instead of biblical conviction, we elevate tolerance. We are being swept downstream with our culture, so that, as Wells states, “evangelicalism has become simply one more expression of the self movement” (p. 140). He cites James Orr, who wrote in 1897, that the New Testament “comes to men with definite, positive teaching; it claims to be the truth; it bases religion on knowledge.... A religion based on mere feeling is the vaguest, most unreliable, most unstable of all things. A strong, stable, religious life can be built on no other ground than that of intelligent conviction” (Wells, p. 281). Wells concludes, “Intelligent conviction requires for its underpinning and, indeed, its explanation, a truth that is objectively true. Unless truth is objective, it cannot be declared to others, cannot be taught to others, cannot be required of others” (p. 282).


If you were here and recall it, my first message as pastor here was from 2 Timothy 4:1-5, “My Major Task and Yours.” I developed the thesis that my major task is to preach God’s truth, even when it reproves, rebukes and exhorts; and that your major task is to hear the Word even when it’s difficult (“endure sound doctrine”), with a view to obeying it. My major danger is that out of a desire to be popular, I will soften God’s truth; your major danger is that out of a desire to feel good, you will go find someone who tells you what you want to hear rather than what you need to hear.

My reason for wanting each of you to read MacArthur and Wells this year (in addition to reading your Bible!) is so you would understand how and why I operate as I do! You will understand why I preach as I do and why I don’t follow a lot of the current popular methods in vogue in evangelical circles. You’ll understand why I don’t hesitate to challenge a lot that is being called Christian in our day, but really is worldly at its core. I am driven by a passion for knowing and proclaiming God’s truth. That truth cuts against not only the grain of our culture, but also of much modern evangelicalism. We live in an age of deception. If we want to avoid being swept downstream, if we want to stand as the pillar and support of God’s truth, we must become people of the truth. Without it, our Christianity will crumble under the pressures of the modern world. I ask you to commit yourself afresh in the New Year to become a person of truth in this age of deception.

Discussion Questions

  1. I’ve often heard, “What we need is life, not doctrine!” What’s wrong with that statement?
  2. How can we emphasize truth and yet avoid arrogant dogmatism? Should dogmatism be a dirty word?
  3. How can we know when to be tolerant and when to hold firmly to biblical convictions?
  4. Biblically, does love take precedence over truth or truth over love?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Cultural Issues, New Year's, Spiritual Life

New Years [2000]: New Millennium Message: The "Inefficiency" of God—A Perspective on God’s View of Time (Various Scriptures)

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January 16, 2000

The change from 1999 to 2000 has us all thinking about the past century and millennium as well as the next. On the personal level, it has made me think about where I’m at in life and where I’m headed, should the Lord give me more years to serve Him. I trust that as a steward of God’s grace, each of you is thinking about your use of the time God has allotted to you.

I want to offer you a perspective on time that may jar you. It jarred me when I first started thinking along these lines years ago. My Bible reading made me begin thinking about how different God’s view of time is from the American view of time. Peter tells us that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day (2 Pet. 3:8). Moses exclaims that a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night (Ps. 90:4). To us, a millennium is a very long time; to God, it’s just another day in paradise!

The radical thought that hit me is that God is terribly inefficient by American standards. I say it reverently, of course. But as I read the Bible, it strikes me how God could have administered His eternal plan much more efficiently than He did. Why take at least four millennia from the fall of man until He sent the Savior? Why bottle up the process with one disobedient nation and then, for the past two millennia with the often disobedient church? The angels could have had the job done in a few weeks or months! Yet here we are, living on a planet where perhaps two billion people have never heard about Jesus Christ!

Our American culture is obsessed with efficiency. If my computer runs at 300 megahertz and a newer one runs at 600, I’ve got to have it! I don’t want to wait! We have instant everything in our society to help us perform tasks more quickly. The contrast between America and the rest of the world hit me when I was in Eastern Europe last fall. I saw men tilling the soil with hand plows behind a horse, and people reaping crops by hand. In America, farming is a computer-driven science. Everything is done by mechanical means. We’re efficient about business, since time means money. Management courses teach us how to squeeze the most from every day and hour. We’re even efficient about our recreation. We listen to books on tape while we jog on a treadmill that tells us our heart rate and how many calories we’re burning. We want efficiency, even from our down time! But,

1. God made people with less efficiency than Americans would have.

Take child development. We push our kids toward achievement. As soon as they’re old enough, we sign them up for classes to nurture their latent talents in sports and music. But have you ever asked, “Why did God design the maturing process to take so long?” Animals mature and reproduce before human beings are out of kindergarten. God could have gotten a lot more use out of people if He had made them like that. Parents could get through the child rearing years in a fraction of the time and get on with other productive things. Kids would be fully functioning adults, making it on their own in five years! As I think about my own life, I can’t remember much from the first ten years. From the next ten, I remember a lot of stupid and sinful things I did that I’d rather forget! During my twenties, I thought that I knew a lot of things that my thirties showed me I really didn’t know! Life is not very efficient!

Consider sleep and rest. I feel like I could go 24-7 and still not get everything done. Life is short enough as it is. But then my body demands that I spend one-third of my life sleeping! I’ve tried to get by on less sleep. I’ve even prayed about it. If I could function on five or six hours a night, I’d gain at least 14 hours per week. But my body won’t cooperate! What a waste of time!

Then, there’s that weekly day of rest that the Lord ordained and our modern evangelical church ignores. Take off one day a week from my normal work to worship and rest? You’ve got to be kidding! I’m behind enough already as it is! How could I get through my week if I didn’t do my normal chores on Sunday?

Just think how we Americans would have designed people if God had given us the opportunity! We’d have them fully mature at younger and younger ages, until it was down around age one. We’d eliminate sickness and sleep. Retirement and old age would get pushed higher and higher. We’d make people so much more productive. Think how the economy would thrive if we could redesign people! God just didn’t make them sufficiently efficient!

2. God uses people with less efficiency than Americans would.

Again in this area, God’s ways are not our ways! Enoch was the most godly man alive in his day, but God took him from the earth after 365 years, less than half the life span of the next shortest life recorded in that time. Why not leave him around for 900 years like everyone else?

Noah was almost 500 years old before God told him to build the ark. He spent 120 years working on that enormous boat. It would have been more efficient for God to judge the earth by sending a plague, rather than waste 120 years of Noah’s life with that ark. Noah lived 950 years, but all that we remember is that he built the ark and later planted a vineyard. Think what we could accomplish if we had 950 healthy years to do it!

Abraham was 75 before God began to work with him. That’s better than 500, but still, not too efficient. The Lord could have started with him at 25. When Abraham was 75 God promised him a son, but he was 100 before the promise was a reality. That was a quarter of a century during which people were dying without the promise of the Savior through Abraham’s descendant. God’s missionary program needed to get going! Why waste 25 years?

What did Abraham achieve during those years? Was he setting goals and planning how to become the father of a great nation? Did he have his Day Timer chock full of key appointments?

Maybe Joseph is our kind of man. He must have been an efficiency expert to administrate Pharaoh’s famine relief program. God must not have wasted any time with him. Sharp, honest, trustworthy, high moral standards—this young man had what it takes for leadership. After a brief apprenticeship with Potiphar, he would be ready for a top management position in some ministry organization.

But God put him in an Egyptian dungeon on a false charge for the better part of his twenties. At one point he had a good chance to get out. He interpreted the dream of his fellow prisoner, the cupbearer. This man was reinstated to his position, just as Joseph had predicted. Joseph’s parting words as the cupbearer walked out of the dungeon were, “Remember me.” But, the cupbearer forgot! Couldn’t the Lord remind him?

In Genesis 41 we read of Pharaoh’s dream, which led to Joseph’s release from prison and sudden rise to power. We read in verse 1, “Now it happened at the end of two full years…” It was two full years from the time of the cupbearer’s release until Pharaoh had his dream. You can read that verse in a fraction of a second, but it was two choice years of Joseph’s life, two more years in this stinking Egyptian dungeon! Why didn’t God give Pharaoh his dream after two weeks?

We can multiply example after example. God left His chosen nation in bondage in Egypt for 400 long years! God called Moses when he was 40 (why not 20?), but Moses blew it and had to spend 40 more years in the Back Side of the Desert Seminary before he led the people out of Egypt. Then he had to spend 40 years wandering around in the wilderness with a bunch of grumbling people, even though it was only an eleven-day walk from Mount Horeb into the Promised Land (Deut. 1:2). Not too efficient!

David, the young man after God’s own heart, was anointed king as a teenager, but then spent his twenties fleeing from the mad king Saul. After David, God allowed some of the worst kings to reign for decades, but He took out some of the godly kings in their primes. At the end of the Old Testament, God waited another 400 years after the last prophet before He sent the forerunner and then the Savior. Think of how long 400 years is—it would take us back to the Renaissance! People were dying without the Savior! From our perspective, 400 years is not an efficient use of time. Yet from God’s perspective, “when the fulness of time came” He sent forth His Son (Gal. 4:4). God’s program was right on schedule!

Think about God’s inefficient use of the messenger who opened the way for Messiah. Jesus referred to John the Baptist as the greatest man born of women (Matt. 11:11). Think of what such a great man could have done with 30 or 40 years of ministry! But God used John only about six months before the wicked King Herod put him in prison. Then one night Herod got drunk, lusted after a dancing girl, and promised her almost anything she wanted. She asked for John’s head on a platter. Couldn’t God have used the life of this great man much more efficiently than this?

Once the church program got going, God chose Paul to launch the whole thing in the Gentile world. If there was ever a key man in God’s program, it was Paul. Surely God would get Paul out there into service right away.

After a somewhat late conversion (probably in his early 30’s), Paul spent several years alone with God in Arabia. He went back home to Tarsus for a few more years before his ministry began to be noticed. Remember, as a trained rabbi, Paul knew the Hebrew Scriptures well from the start of his conversion. Surely he was qualified to teach. But God waited years before sending him out.

Then Paul encountered numerous problems and frequent opposition. Couldn’t the Lord provide enough support so that His apostle to the Gentiles didn’t have to waste time making tents? Couldn’t He take away that thorn in the flesh so that Paul could serve in full bodily strength? Couldn’t God get rid of those pesky Judaizers, who kept dogging Paul’s steps and undoing everything that Paul had established? Add to this the beatings, jail time, shipwrecks, and other wastes of precious time.

As Paul dreamed of taking the gospel to Rome, Spain, and points beyond, God saw fit to put him in custody in Caesarea. Yes, it was God’s way of getting His man to Rome, all expenses paid. But in Acts 24:27, we read something that shouldn’t surprise us by now: “But after two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus; and wishing to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul imprisoned.” Two inefficient years sitting in jail in Caesarea! Here was God’s main apostle in custody for two years while the Gentile world was dying without the gospel! Wasn’t the church praying for his release? Couldn’t God overcome the political maneuvers of a petty governor in Judea to free His man? And Paul wasn’t getting any younger! We Americans could teach the Lord a few things about managing His servants more efficiently!

Think about the only perfect man who has ever lived, and marvel at the inefficiency of God! If I had been Jesus’ parent, I would have had the boy out preaching by the time He was twelve! He could refute the scholars by that age. By the time He was 20, at the latest, He could have drawn crowds of thousands. Why have the Son of God waste 30 years in Nazareth as a carpenter when He could be out reaching the masses? Why give Him only three years to minister before His death? And yet, although we would have had a much different (and more efficient!) use of Jesus’ time, He accomplished everything that the Father had given Him to do (John 17:4).

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that we waste time! Wasting time is a sin, just like wasting money is a sin. It’s poor stewardship before the Lord. I still set goals and try to use my time efficiently. But I am suggesting that …

God’s concept of time and our American concept are not identical, and we need to get God’s view.

His ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). Some of the things that we think are a waste of time may not be, and some of the things that we think are efficient are really a waste of time from God’s perspective. Maybe you’re not as efficiency conscious as I am. I go off the charts on tests that measure self-discipline and time use. I go nuts if I’m stuck somewhere that I have to wait and I don’t have a book with me. I hate it when I spend my time on unproductive things. I like getting things done. I like efficiency. So it jarred me when I realized how seemingly inefficient God is.


I’m too efficient to say “amen” at this point and let you go home and wrestle with the implications of this sermon. So please allow me to leave you with four action points:

(1) Take time to walk with God.

It is instructive that the Bible often refers to the Christian life as a walk, seldom as a run, and never as a mad dash! Walking isn’t the quickest way to get from one point to another, but we are instructed to walk with God. Enoch walked with God (Gen. 5:22, 24). That implies spending time alone with Him. If you always do your quiet time on the run, or not at all, you are not walking with God. You need to take time to read and meditate on His Word, to assimilate it into your life. You need to set aside time to pray and to worship God. Worship, by the way, is a terribly inefficient activity. When Mary broke the alabaster bottle of perfume and poured out the contents on Jesus’ feet, the disciples all remarked, “Why this waste?” (Matt. 26:8). They were concerned with efficiency. But Jesus was concerned with devotion. He commended Mary. We need to take the time to join her at Jesus’ feet.

As you read God’s Word, use it to evaluate your own life and our culture from His perspective. That’s how I got the ideas behind this message. Years ago I was reading in Genesis and it hit me that the patriarchs didn’t accomplish much for living so long. And yet they are held up to us as models because they walked with God and were obedient to His Word. As you read the Word, constantly pray that God would enable you to live in a manner pleasing to Him. That should be our main goal.

If you’ve never done it, why not read through the Bible this year? Or, if you have an overall grasp of Scripture, commit yourself to study one book in more depth. Devote more time to reading some good Christian books that will help you grow in the Lord.

(2) Take time to be with your family.

Not many guys live to be 65 and say, “I wish I had spent more time on my business.” But many say, “I wish I’d spent more time with my wife and kids.” I first preached this message 13 years ago. I said then, “In about 12 or 13 more years, I’ll have more time to devote to the ministry, because my kids will be out of the nest. But in the meanwhile, I believe God would have me curtail my hours in ‘official’ ministry and spend time with my family.” Looking back from this side, I don’t regret at all that I spent that time playing with and reading to my kids when they were younger. All the efficiency-minded folks say that you must spend quality time with your kids. I never bought into that. Your kids don’t say, “Thanks for those quality ten minutes, Dad!” They only appreciate quantity time.

Take time to have a family vacation, especially when your children are young. You don’t have to spend a pile of money. Buy some camping gear and go have fun! Gary Smalley (If Only He Knew [Zondervan], pp. 135-137) interviewed more than 30 couples whom he picked because they seemed to have close relationships and their children, many of them teenagers, seemed to be happy and close to their parents. He asked them, “What is the main reason you’re all so close and happy as a family?” Without exception, he always got the same answer, “We do a lot of things together.”

It is interesting that all the families had one activity in particular that they all did: Camping! Smalley tried it and said that he discovered the reason why camping draws families together: Any family that faces sure death together and survives will be closer! I always told my kids, “The only thing more fun than camping is camping in the rain!” Also, before you go, remember this simple family vacation rule: No family should leave on a long trip if the number of children is greater than the number of car windows!

(3) Take time to be with God’s family.

The same principles apply to the church as to the family. We will have the greatest impact for Christ on those we spend the most time with. Those who are older in the faith need to take under wing those who are younger (2 Tim. 2:2; Titus 2:3, 4). Get involved with fellow believers in a closer way than just seeing them occasionally on Sunday. We’re family, and when God’s family gets together, we should want to be there.

(4) Take time to reach out to lost people.

I confess that this is difficult for me. I spend almost all of my time around Christians. But I want to have an outward focus. I have on my prayer list that God would give me a heart for the lost. Our Lord spent some of His short time on this earth in social situations with lost people. I believe that He wants us to do the same. Ask God to use you to reach out to those without Christ.

These four action points are just God’s two Great Commandments and the Great Commission, broken down into sub-categories. First, love the Lord your God with your total being. Be devoted to Him. Second, love others as much as you already love yourself: love your family, love other believers, and love those without Christ enough to reach out to them with the good news.

Probably many of you are thinking, “When could I ever find time to do what you’re saying? Spend time with God, with my family, with other believers, and with those outside the church! I’m already too busy! What should I do?”

One suggestion is to limit the number of hours per week that you spend watching TV or playing with your computer. We all need some down time, but you’ve got to put a limit on it. Build your life around loving God and loving people. Cut out of your life things that don’t contribute to those priorities.

Another suggestion is for those of you who, like me, tend to be efficiency-minded: Relax, let God run the universe, and take the time to enjoy Him, His creation, and the people He has put around you. You can rack up a list of accomplishments that are humanly impressive, but they will be wood, hay, and stubble at the judgment. Or, you can know God and walk with Him so that the things that He accomplishes through you are gold, silver, and precious stones on that day. A relatively short life where you walk with God and have His blessing is far more effective in God’s economy than a long life full of human accomplishments that lack His blessing.

However many more years God gives us in this new millennium, let’s pray what Moses prayed. As he considered the eternal God and the shortness of our lives, he prayed, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” And, he added, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and do confirm for us the work of our hands; yes, confirm the work of our hands” (Ps. 90:12, 17).

Discussion Questions

  1. Some are efficiency-driven; others are need more efficiency. Which are you? How then can you apply this message?
  2. How should Christians measure a “successful” life? What criteria should we use?
  3. What biblical passages encourage us to set spiritual goals? How should setting spiritual goals differ from the way that worldly people set and pursue goals?
  4. Does God’s “inefficiency” change your concept of Him? How? What practical ramifications does this have?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: New Year's, Spiritual Life

New Years [2007]: Learning to Control Yourself (Galatians 5:22-23)

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December 31, 2006

What do the following people have in common: the drunk on skid row; the student flunking out of college because he never studies; the person who is always late for appointments; the compulsive eater; the smoker; the man who frequently looks at pornography on the Internet; the drug addict; and, the Christian who never grows because he doesn’t spend time alone with God? Answer: They all lack the fruit of the Spirit, which is self-control.

In my almost 30 years of pastoral ministry, I would say that the presence or absence of self-control is one of the most determinative factors in whether you will do well or have serious problems in your Christian life. It affects how you manage your time; your money; your ability to overcome temptation; your development of godly character qualities; controlling your temper and your tongue; regulating your health (through proper diet, exercise, and rest); and, most importantly, whether or not you spend consistent time in the Word and prayer.

Since we are on the eve of a New Year, which always reminds me of how quickly life flies by, I thought that it would be helpful to look at what God’s Word says about this often-neglected fruit of the Holy Spirit, self-control. I have a tough sales job on my hands, because we’re all suckers for the quick fix for problems that require sustained discipline. An ad promises, “Just pop a pill and you can eat chocolates all day long and lie around on the couch watching TV, but you’ll lose 50 pounds!” People actually spend their money on such gimmicks! But you can promise them a sure-fire way to lose weight that won’t cost them a dime, but they won’t do it: Eat healthy food in the proper amount and exercise for an hour every day. Why won’t they do it? Because it requires self-control!

The spiritual fruit of self-control, while guaranteed to be effective, is not a quick fix. It requires a lifetime habit of discipline for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). You will be tempted by spiritual snake-oil hucksters, who tell you that if you will just get slain or baptized in the Spirit, all of your temptations will evaporate. Don’t believe them! Discipline for the purpose of godliness is God’s prescribed means to godliness. Our text shows that…

God wants you to learn to control your life under the control of His Holy Spirit.

We will examine the subject by answering three questions: What is self-control? How do you get it? Where do you need it?

What is self-control?

  • Self-control is the inward rule or regulation of every area of your life under the ultimate authority and control of God’s Spirit in line with His Word.

The Greek word comes from a root word meaning power or lordship. The Jewish writer, Philo, described it as having superiority over every desire (Walter Grundmann, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. by Gerhard Kittel [Eerdmans], 2:340-341). In our text, it stands in opposition to the deeds of the flesh, which are (Gal. 5:19-21), “immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Paul lists “self-control” as a qualification for elders (Titus 1:8). Peter includes it in his list of godly qualities that we must develop (2 Pet. 1:6). By definition, self-control means overruling your emotions because of a higher goal. Because you want to please and honor God, you must go against your feelings of the moment.

1. Self-control is primarily inward and only secondarily outward.

Jesus said (Mark 7:21-23), “For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” It follows that if we only control such evil desires in order to look good in front of people or to avoid being prosecuted by the law, we are just putting a Band-Aid on the cancer of the heart. The control of the Holy Spirit extends to the heart level, allowing us to deal with temptation before it goes any farther.

2. Self-control operates under Spirit-control.

There is a paradox here: to be Spirit-controlled results in being self-controlled. As we walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), He produces in us the ability to control every area of our lives in line with His holy purposes. This implies active responsibility on your part. Sometimes, speakers on the spiritual life state that you are to be completely passive: “Just let go and let God.” “If you’re striving, you’re not trusting.” This is clearly unbiblical. Paul wrote (Col. 1:29), “For this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.” Both are true. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control.

3. Self-control is not self-willed, but it is connected with your will.

In Titus 1:8, Paul says that an elder is to be self-controlled, but in the previous verse, he says that an elder must not be self-willed. Clearly, both are connected with our responsibility to choose (our will). But the difference is, the self-controlled person is submitting himself to God’s will as revealed in His Word, whereas the self-willed person is acting for his own selfish desires, disregarding what God wills. Because God has given us new life in Christ and has given His Holy Spirit to indwell us, we have both the responsibility and the ability to yield our self-will to His revealed will.

4. Self-control is not legalism.

If you develop this fruit of the Spirit, some Christians will label you as legalistic. But this quality appears in the Book of Galatians, which was written to combat legalism. Legalism is the attempt to earn standing with God by performing certain duties or behavior. Also, legalists attempt to look spiritual to others by keeping their man-made rules and they judge those who do not keep their rules. To live as a godly Christian, you must live openly before God, who examines the heart (1 Thess. 2:4).

Living under God’s grace, by the way, does not mean that God gives you a bunch of free passes on sin each day, or that you can live a, hang-loose, sloppy, unproductive life. Paul wrote (1 Cor. 15:10), “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them [the other apostles]; yet not I, but the grace of God with me.”

5. Self-control is not asceticism.

Asceticism means denying yourself certain legitimate comforts and imposing certain hardships for some spiritual value. Join a monastery where you eat a meager diet, sleep on a hard mat in a cold room, and take a vow of poverty in order to control the flesh. Paul describes that approach (Col. 2:20-22) and concludes (2:23), “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

At the same time, Paul does mention the example of an athlete, who exercises self-control in all things in order to win (1 Cor. 9:25). He goes on to say that he disciplines his body so that he will not be disqualified from preaching the gospel. Thus your motive for controlling yourself is crucial. For example, a missionary to the Muslims may not eat pork, because to do so would be a needless offense to Muslims. But not to eat pork because you think it will make you more spiritual would be asceticism.

6. Self-control is not rigid, but flexible.

There is the danger of being so self-controlled that you lose the ability to relate spontaneously to others in love. For example, it is good to be disciplined to read your Bible and pray every day. But suppose you’re in the middle of your quiet time, and your two-year-old exuberantly jumps into your lap to show you his picture that he colored for you. I would suggest that you are not properly self-controlled under the Spirit’s control if you push him away, saying, “Can’t you see that I’m reading the Bible!” The fruit of self-control is also accompanied by the fruits of love, patience, kindness, and gentleness. The aim of self-control is always to enable us to love God and to love others. If we use self-control merely for selfish purposes, we are not exercising this fruit of the Spirit.

How do you get self-control?

Some, by natural temperament and perhaps by upbringing, are more inclined to self-control than others are. If you are not so inclined, then you will have to fight harder to develop it. Paul does not say that those who by nature are more free-spirited or disorganized are exempt from this quality! A study of both Paul and Jesus will show that they exhibited this fruit. To be godly, you must be self-controlled. In one sentence:

  • You get self-control by walking in the Spirit’s control as you live in accordance with God’s purpose for your life.

Here is how to implement this step by step:

1. Write a one-sentence purpose statement for your life.

Granted, there is no verse in the Bible that specifically tells you to do this. But many verses show that Jesus and Paul both were clear about their purpose for living. Consider:

Matthew 6:33: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Luke 19:10: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

John 17:4: “I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.”

1 Corinthians 9:23: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.”

Philippians 3:8a, 12b: “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…. I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”

1 Timothy 4:7b: “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

These and many other verses show that Jesus and Paul were men of godly purpose. Picture yourself on your deathbed and ask, what do you want to have accomplished with your life? Here is my personal purpose statement: “To glorify God by being a godly husband and father, and by using my gift of pastor-teacher for the building up of the body of Christ and the furtherance of the gospel.” Every Christian will desire to glorify God. Beyond that, your statement will vary, depending on your personality and gifts. But write it down and look at it often, so that you are clear on why God has you on this earth.

2. Establish biblical goals for every area of your life to help move you towards your life purpose.

Paul illustrates this with the analogy of an athlete who wants to win (1 Cor. 9:24-27). To get to that goal, he brings every area of his life under that purpose. He controls his diet, he gets the proper rest, and he schedules regular workouts to move him towards the goal of winning the prize.

Again, this will vary with each person, depending on where you most need to grow. You should determine these goals from the Bible, not from some worldly self-help book. They will include biblical character qualities that you need to develop, and biblical activities that you need to practice. Your goals should include developing loving relationships, properly managing your time and money in light of God’s purposes, and being a good steward of the spiritual gifts that He has given you. Write down your goals.

3. Commit yourself to these goals.

Biblical goals provide the motivation to change, but you must count the cost and be willing to commit yourself to them. I’ve often wished that I could speak a foreign language, but I’ve never committed myself to achieve that goal. As you know, there are no easy ways to learn a language. It takes time and discipline to do it well. Before you commit to some spiritual goal, think about what it will require and whether you are willing to commit to follow through. Your motive has to be to please God.

4. Plan specifically how to reach these goals.

You need to prioritize and schedule your goals. If your marriage is falling apart because you have a bad temper, you should make controlling your temper a top goal! If your life is dominated by drug or alcohol abuse, you can’t begin to glorify God until you get those sinful practices under control. Prioritize them!

Also, you must rearrange your schedule to put these new priorities in place. It will mean getting up in time to spend time in the Word, in Scripture memory, and in prayer. It may mean scheduling a weekly time to meet with a small group for growth and accountability. It may mean breaking off certain harmful habits that pull you down, whether ungodly friendships at the local bar or watching TV shows that defile you. You may have to limit computer use.

5. Implement, evaluate, and correct your goals as necessary.

Put your plan into action and then take a few minutes every week or two to evaluate your progress and make necessary corrections. You may decide that some of your original goals need to be modified or changed altogether. When you get certain things into place as godly habits, you can add new goals.

6. Walk by means of the Holy Spirit every day.

This undergirds the whole process. Note Galatians 5:16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” He goes on to talk about the strong desires of the flesh that war against the Spirit. If you do not conquer these desires, you will not grow in godliness. You don’t win wars accidentally! You must devote yourself to the battle, committed to fight with everything you’ve got. Anything less will result in defeat.

To walk by the Spirit means to depend upon and yield to the indwelling Holy Spirit moment by moment every day. Walking is not as spectacular as leaping or flying, but if you keep at it, you’ll get where you’re going. Also, the picture of fruit implies a slow, deliberate process. There will be setbacks and difficulties along the way. The question is, are you actively, purposefully walking by the Spirit, coming back to dependence on Him when you have fallen, so that over the long haul, the fruit of the Spirit, including self-control, is growing in your life?

Where do you need self-control?

If you haven’t been convicted yet, this ought to do it! In a nutshell,

  • You need self-control in every aspect of your life.

Let me briefly mention seven areas. Rather than being overwhelmed because you need to improve in all seven, prayerfully evaluate where you most need to grow and prioritize these.

1. Control your body.

Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and you are to glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:19-20). This includes getting proper rest (avoiding the extremes of laziness and being a workaholic). It means getting proper exercise and eating a healthy diet of moderate proportions, so as to avoid the problems that come from eating junk food and being overweight. This will vary from person to person, but none of us can do it without self-control.

Controlling your body also requires godly control over your sexual desires. God made you with those desires, but He also designed them to be restricted to the marriage relationship.

2. Control your mind.

Our culture, more than any other in history, bombards us through the media with ungodly ways to think and live. To be godly, you must control your mind (Phil. 4:8; Col. 3:1-4). What do you think about? You cannot engage in a secret life of lust after sex or greed and become godly. To control your thought life, control what you read. Saturate your mind with the Bible and with books that help you grow in godliness. Set some goals, such as reading through the Bible in a year, or reading a certain number of Christian books this year. Put these things in your schedule.

Control what you expose your mind to (TV, movies, Internet, etc.). You cannot watch certain types of movies without those evil images embedding themselves in your brain.

3. Control your emotions.

You are not the helpless victim of your emotions! If you are genetically prone to depression or anxiety or impulsiveness or lust, you may have to battle harder to gain control than someone else will. But these fruits of the Spirit are promised to all that walk by the Spirit, not just to certain personality types. If you live by constantly yielding to your emotions, you will not grow in godliness. Self-control means controlling your emotions for a higher goal.

4. Control your time.

Often we excuse our ungodliness by saying, “I don’t have time.” But we all have time to do what we want to do. The question is, do you want to be godly? If so, cut out of your schedule the unnecessary things that hinder spending time with the Lord.

5. Control your finances.

We often complain that we don’t have enough money to pay bills, let alone to give consistently to the Lord’s work. But usually the problem is that we do not properly manage what the Lord has entrusted to us. Let me put it bluntly: Cable TV, dinners out, and expensive entertainment are not necessities! If you can pay your bills and give generously to the Lord’s work, those things may be permissible. Unless you need it for work, believe it or not, a cell phone is not a necessity! Running up credit card debt is almost always due to poor financial management.

6. Control your tongue.

Abusive speech or words that tear down others (even in jest) are sinful (Col. 3:8). Angry words and name-calling are sins (Eph. 4:29-32). Lying is sin (Eph. 4:25). Talking inappropriately about sex and telling dirty jokes are sins (Eph. 5:3-4). Gossip and slander are sins (Eph. 4:31; James 4:11). Taking the Lord’s name in vain is sin (Exod. 20:7; Matt. 6:9). Paul wrote (Eph. 4:29), “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” To please God, you must learn to control your tongue (James 3:1-12).

7. Control your relationships.

I do not mean to act in a controlling manner towards others! I mean that you must take the initiative to distance yourself from anyone that pulls you towards the world or the flesh. Be careful about relationships with unbelievers, especially those that yoke you unequally, whether in marriage or in business (2 Cor. 6:14-18). If you are single, do not date unbelievers, even to witness to them. If you develop friendships with unbelievers, be careful to keep in mind the aim of being a godly witness, so that you do not join them in godless pleasure (Luke 5:29-32; 1 Pet. 4:1-5).

Positively, work on developing godly, loving relationships, beginning with your mate and children. Practice biblical love on a daily basis. Ask God for a more mature person (men with men, women with women) who can help you grow in Christ.


The danger of a message like this is that you will feel so overwhelmed by all that you need to do that you will be paralyzed by procrastination. My advice is to pray through the areas that I’ve mentioned, asking God to help you prioritize them. Work on the one or two areas that would bring the most needed results. If you fall, get up and keep walking by the Spirit. As you do, He will work in you the fruit of self-control for His glory.

Application Questions

  1. Have you ever written out a purpose statement for your life in light of God’s purpose? When will you make time to do it?
  2. How does self-control differ from legalism? Why does God’s grace not lead to sloppy living, but to self-controlled living?
  3. When is it okay to yield to an impulse or mood and when is it sin?
  4. Someone may argue that to deny your emotions for a higher goal will lead to repressed feelings and psychological problems. How would you answer this biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Cultural Issues, Discipleship, Discipline, New Year's, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Life

New Years [2011]: Don’t Waste the New Year (John 11:1-16, 25-27)

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December 26, 2010

Don’t you hate waste? When you hear about how the government often wastes our money, it’s sickening. I saw it firsthand on a very small scale when I was in Coast Guard boot camp. On one occasion, the mess hall served us steaks for dinner, which was a nice treat, of course! But someone had ordered far too many steaks. The cooks were piling three or four steaks on every plate. Since we were not allowed to take any food out of the mess hall, most of those steaks ended up in the trash. As I reluctantly dumped my extra steaks into a trash can full of steaks, I thought about all the hungry people who were probably within ten minutes of the base. Waste is wrong!

But far worse than wasting steaks is wasting lives, which God created for His purpose. We waste our lives by wasting our time, because how we spend our time is how we spend our lives. What if you had $1,440 in the bank that you had to spend every day? None of it could be carried over to the next day. It would not be easy to use that money wisely!

The fact is, each of us does have 1,440 minutes every day to use for some purpose. If you live through next year, you’ll have 8,760 hours to spend. Allowing eight hours per day for sleep and eight more for work, meals, and commuting time (we’re not figuring in days off), it only leaves 2,920 hours. How will you use those hours that God has entrusted to you? Will you use them in light of eternity? Or, will you waste a significant amount of time on things that really don’t matter?

My mother’s recent death, along with the upcoming New Year, made me think about the importance of living in light of eternity. My parents used to have a wall plaque by our front door with the motto, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.” That is not to say that every waking minute must be used for “spiritual” purposes. The Lord knows that we all have to go shopping, fix meals, clean house, mow lawns, maintain cars, and pay bills. We all need a certain amount of “down” time. But all that aside, we do need to consider using our time in ways that further God’s purposes. Since Jesus gave Himself on the cross to redeem us from this evil world, it would be an utter tragedy to waste our lives.

Jesus is our great example of how to spend our time productively for God’s purposes. He waited until He was about 30 to begin His ministry. Couldn’t He have accomplished a lot more if He had begun at 21 or 25? Apparently, not! Then, in three short years, He launched a ministry with a bunch of unlikely men that has changed history. Yet He never seemed rushed or hassled. He always had time for people whom many would brush off—an immoral Samaritan woman; a blind beggar; an insane demoniac; and, many others.

How did He do it? At the core of everything was His communion with the Father and His complete submission to His will. There is a recurring theme in John’s Gospel about “the hour” (2:4; 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 16:2, 4, 25, 32; 17:1). In our text, it comes out in Jesus’ sense of timing as to when He should go to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. He explains it to the disciples in a parable about the hours of daylight and darkness (11:9-10). There are many wonderful lessons in this chapter about Jesus’ power over death and His ministry to us in our trials and grief. But I’d like to focus on our use of time:

We use our time correctly only when we live in submission to God’s purposes in light of eternity.

First, let’s look at what Jesus said and did here and then we’ll apply it to our lives.

1. Jesus used His time correctly by living in submission to God’s purposes in light of eternity.

Jesus was ministering somewhere east of the Jordan River to avoid the attempts of the Jewish leaders to seize Him (10:39-40) when word came that His friend Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, was sick. The usual view is that Lazarus had died shortly after the messengers left. They arrived late that same day and gave Jesus the news. He stayed two days longer where He was (11:6), then spent a day traveling to Bethany, where He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.

But D. A. Carson (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/ Apollos], pp. 407-408) argues that Jesus was farther away than a day’s travel. When the messengers arrived, Lazarus was still alive (11:4). After the two-day delay, Jesus states that Lazarus had died (11:11, 14). Then Jesus traveled four days to Bethany, where He found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days (11:17). But, either way, the account makes it plain that Lazarus could not just have been in a coma. His body was beginning to decompose. Jesus’ calling Lazarus from the tomb was both a demonstration of His supernatural power and a powerful object lesson that He is the resurrection and the life, so that whoever believes in Him will live even if he dies (11:25-26).

To consider how Jesus used His time, it is instructive to note both how He did not make decisions and how He made them:

A. How Jesus did not make decisions:

(1) Jesus did not make decisions based on the pressure of His friends (11:1-4).

In verse 2, John identifies Mary by pointing ahead to what may have been a familiar incident to many of his readers (12:1-8), how Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wiped His feet with her hair. It shows Mary’s devotion to the Lord and how the appeal of one so close to the Lord must have tugged on His heart. This is intensified by the way the messengers identified Lazarus, “He whom You love is sick.” Jesus loved all people, of course, but Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were Jesus’ special friends. They had a close relationship centered on the things of God.

Thus it seems strange to read that when Jesus heard that Lazarus was sick, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was. You would think that He would have quickly ended what He was doing beyond the Jordan and hurried to Bethany. Or He could have healed Lazarus from a distance. But He didn’t make decisions based on the pressure of even His closest friends. Rather, as we’ll see in a moment, He made decisions based on God’s purposes.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should not seek the counsel of wise Christian friends. God gives us such friends so that we don’t make mistakes that we are blind to. But doing the will of God must be uppermost in our decisions. For example, sometimes your family and friends may not want you to move to another country to serve the Lord because they enjoy your company here. Jim Elliot’s parents did not want him to go to South America and tried to encourage him to stay and serve the Lord in the U.S. But he felt impelled to take the gospel to the unreached tribes in South America, where he was killed at age 28 (see Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], by Elisabeth Elliot, pp. 128-133).

(2) Jesus did not make decisions based on the emotions of the moment (11:5-6).

John notes Jesus’ special love for Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus. But Jesus didn’t allow His feelings for these friends to push Him into panic mode. Rather, He calmly stayed where He was at for two days and then made the trip to Bethany.

How many of our decisions are based more on the emotions of the moment instead of calmly thinking through what the will of God might be in this situation? Generally, emotional decisions based upon the pressure of the moment are not going to be the wisest decisions. At the very least, pause, pray, and think through the situation in light of Scripture before you act.

(3) Jesus did not make decisions based on the threats of His enemies (11:7-11).

When Jesus told the disciples, “Let’s go to Judea again,” their response was (11:8), “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone You, and are You going there again?” This is a thinly veiled way of saying, “Are You crazy? Do You want to die?” And you get the feeling that their underlying thinking was, “If we go there with Jesus, we might die, too!” But Jesus didn’t decide where to go or serve on the basis of the threats of His enemies (see Luke 13:31-32). He did God’s will without being frightened by His enemies.

While there is a place for due caution and sometimes for fleeing for your life (Acts 9:23-25, 29-30), it is also true that it is safer to be with Jesus in a place of danger than to be without Jesus in a place of seeming safety. If we’re doing what God has called us to do, we should not be deterred by the threats of those who oppose His work (see Nehemiah 4, 6).

B. How Jesus did make decisions:

(1) Jesus made decisions based on what would glorify God (11:4).

“But when Jesus heard this, He said, ‘This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it’” (11:4). This is a remarkable statement in that it reveals Jesus’ knowledge of the future and that He would raise Lazarus from the dead. Also, Jesus put Himself on the same level as God, claiming that He would share the glory of this event with God. Can you imagine a religious leader saying, “I’m going to perform a miracle so that God will be glorified and I’m going to be glorified, too”? What arrogance and blasphemy! But Jesus could say these things. Since God is very jealous about not sharing His glory with any man (Isa. 42:8), Jesus is asserting His own deity.

Of course, Jesus raised Lazarus to relieve Mary and Martha’s grief and sorrow. But even above that, He raised Lazarus to show in a most powerful way that He is the resurrection and the life (11:25). Here’s the lesson: God’s glory takes priority even above our comfort and relief from trials! So in any decision, ask, “Which course of action will bring the most glory to God?” We can’t always control the outcome of our decisions, but we should aim to make God look good, as He really is.

(2) Jesus made decisions based on walking in the light of God’s purposes (11:9-10).

When the disciples warned Jesus about the danger of returning to Judea (11:8), He replied (11:9-10), “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

True to John’s style of writing, Jesus’ words have several levels of meaning. In the first place, the twelve hours of daylight referred to the time when a man could work. “Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). Thus Jesus was saying that God has appointed a certain amount of time for Him (or anyone) to work, and no one can touch Him before that time has ended.

Second, there is also the thought that as long as Jesus, the Light of the world, is present, men should make the most of it. He will soon be taken from them. In other words, make the most of opportunities to serve God while you can.

Third, there is the idea that to be with Jesus is to be in the light; to be away from Him is to be in the darkness and thus subject to stumbling. So as we’ve seen, it’s better to go with Jesus into a place of danger than to be without Him in a place of seeming safety. While Thomas was rather pessimistic (11:16), he was right: It’s better to die with Jesus than to live without Him.

(3) Jesus made decisions based on helping others come to faith and/or grow in faith (11:15, 25-26, 42, 45).

This story is all about building each person’s faith in Jesus. The disciples already believed in Jesus, but their faith needed to grow. So Jesus makes what at first sounds like an outrageous statement (11:14b-15), “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Jesus wasn’t glad that Lazarus was dead, but He was glad for this situation because it would result in greater faith for the disciples.

Also, to the grieving Martha, Jesus states (11:25-26), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” Carson points out (ibid., p. 412), “Jesus’ concern is to divert Martha’s focus from an abstract belief in what takes place on the last day, to a personalized belief in him who alone can provide it.” If we believe in Jesus, we have eternal life here and now. And, though we will die physically, we will live with Jesus spiritually without interruption. To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). When He comes again, our bodies will be raised in immortality. Jesus pointedly asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” He wanted Martha (and us) to believe in Him, but also to believe certain truths about Him.

Also, when Jesus prays aloud at the tomb of Lazarus (11:42), He states plainly that He did so in order that the people standing around the tomb would believe that the Father had sent Him. Thus one of His main aims in waiting before coming to raise Lazarus was to bring some to saving faith and to strengthen the faith of those who already believed in Him. That should be a factor in our decisions about how to spend our time: will it increase our faith and the faith of other believers? And, will it bring others who do not yet believe to saving faith?

Eleven years ago, there was mass fear-mongering about what might happen when the calendar turned to January 1, 2000. Many predicted massive catastrophes: power outages, plane crashes, economic chaos, and worse. A man in this church who had been the CIA director for Europe was sure that there would be an unprecedented meltdown.

About this time, I got an unusual invitation to speak at a retreat for college students over Y2K in a remote village in the Czech Republic. As I considered what to do, I thought, “It would require faith in God to go. Staying home doesn’t require much faith.” So we trusted God and went and had a great time with those students.

So Jesus’ life counted for God because He lived in submission to God’s purposes in light of eternity. He did what He did to further God’s glory by bringing people to saving faith and to deeper faith in Him as Lord. We can apply Jesus’ motives and actions to our lives:

2. Our lives will count for God if we live in submission to His purposes in light of eternity.

Let me give you three broad applications, with some more specific action points under the third one:

A. Make sure that you are in submission to God and His will.

This is the starting point of moving from wasting your life to making your life count for eternity. This is both an initial decision and an ongoing renewed commitment. You come to a point where you recognize that Jesus is the Lord God, who gave Himself on the cross to redeem you from your sins. So you yield everything that you are to all of Christ that you know. But as you walk with Christ, His Word reveals areas of your life that you have not yet yielded to Him. And you grow to know more of who Christ is, which results in yielding more of yourself to Him.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul wrote, “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” As I said, presenting yourself as a living and holy sacrifice is an initial commitment, but also a frequently renewed one, because as some wag put it, “Living sacrifices have a way of crawling off the altar!”

The main question to answer is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” If He is the one sent by God (11:42), who can call a rotting corpse back to life, and who willingly went to the cross as the sacrifice for my sins, then I’d better believe in Him and yield all of my life to Him.

The response of the Jewish leaders to the news that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead was not only irrational and stupid; it was suicidal. First, they planned to kill Jesus (11:53). Then, they planned to kill Lazarus, “because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus” (12:11). Isn’t that absurd! First, they want to kill the one who has the power over death. Then they want to kill the one that He raised from the dead. They succeeded in killing Jesus, but the grave couldn’t hold Him. Their stubborn hardness of heart only resulted in their own eternal condemnation. So if you want your life to count for God, submit every area of your life to Jesus as Lord. Repeat as necessary!

B. Keep in tune with the Father.

Jesus knew the will of the Father because He walked closely with the Father. There are no magic formulas for knowing God’s will. To use your time wisely so that you do the will of the Father, spend much time with Him in the Word and in prayer.

C. Prayerfully establish and maintain godly priorities.

Jesus accomplished so much in so little time because He had clear objectives for what He was doing. He told us clearly about these objectives so that we can follow in His steps:

(1) Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness.

Jesus gave this command in the context of worrying about money (Matt. 6:33): “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” To keep that objective in place requires constant fine tuning and much prayer to figure out how to apply it. But it’s pretty clear, isn’t it!

(2) Love God and love others.

Jesus boils everything down to these two great commandments (Matt. 22:37-39): Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Keep your relationship with God fresh and real. Spend time often in the Word and in prayer. And focus on your responsibility to love others as Christ has loved you (John 13:34; 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 5:1-2; 1 John 4:7-21; etc.). Don’t forget that your closest neighbor isn’t the guy next door. It’s those you live with. Love should begin in our homes with kind words and selfless service.

(3) Ask God to give you a few people whom you can help come to know Him and to grow in Him.

That’s what Jesus was doing here. He wanted the crowds to come to believe in Him as the Savior sent by the Father. He wanted the disciples and Mary and Martha to believe in a deeper way. Jesus mainly poured Himself into a few and sent them to do the same with others. That was Paul’s strategy, too (2 Tim. 2:2). Let it be yours and you will not waste your life.


When Jonathan Edwards was 19-20, he wrote out 70 resolutions to govern his life. Number 5 was, “Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but to improve it in the most profitable way I possibly can.” Number 17 was, “Resolved, That I will live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:xx-xxi).

If you live through 2011, you have about 2,920 hours of free time. Don’t waste them! Live in submission to God’s purposes in light of eternity.

Application Questions

  1. Do you have a written purpose statement for your life and some written goals to move you toward that purpose? Do it!
  2. As you think over 2010, what was your most productive use of your time in light of eternity? What was your biggest time waster? How can you plan to change this?
  3. How can you know the proper balance between necessary “down time” and using your time for eternal purposes? Was Jonathan Edwards too “driven”?
  4. What do you do to stay fresh in your love for God? How can you improve in this area in the New Year?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Discipline, New Year's, Spiritual Life

New Years [2012]: Growing Spiritually in the New Year (Various Scriptures)

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January 1, 2012

You’ve probably heard the familiar adage, “Aim at nothing and you’ll hit it every time.” Often the reason that we do not grow spiritually is that while we say we want to grow, we do not aim to grow. So we drift from day to day and year to year without experiencing significant growth in the Lord.

So for this New Year’s Day, I’m going to give you some practical counsel on how to grow spiritually in the coming year. I’m going to depart from my usual approach of explaining and applying a single paragraph or verse of Scripture and use many different verses, with an emphasis on application. For some of you, this will be very basic. You’ve been doing most of these things for years. I would encourage you to find a younger believer and help him (or her) put these things in place in his daily life. For others, this message may uncover a few areas that you need to focus on this year. And yet for others, this message may be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose. There is so much to take in that it will overwhelm you. I’d advise you to prayerfully focus on two or three goals at first to get going. Once those are in place, move on to one or two more. Remember, growth is a process!

My theme verse is 1 Timothy 4:7,

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

This was Paul’s inspired counsel to his younger disciple, Timothy. (I have a sermon on 1 Timothy 4:6-10 on the church web site, along with some notes under the “Resources” tab on developing self-control.) Paul uses an athletic metaphor: discipline comes from a Greek word from which we get our word, gymnasium. We can sit on our couch watching some sports event and think, “I wish I could play that sport like that!” But all the wishing in the world won’t make it happen.

While we no doubt lack the natural ability that those athletes possess, it is also true that they are not just doing what comes naturally. Any professional athlete spends hours every day working out and developing his or her skills. When they hit a home run or sink a three-point basket or hit a receiver downfield with a perfect pass, you know that they have worked hard and practiced repeatedly to be able to do that. They have disciplined themselves for the goal of being proficient in their sport. There are no shortcuts. Paul tells us to do that spiritually for the purpose of godliness.

I need to warn you that there are many spiritual hucksters out there offering easy, quick fixes toward godliness. We’re all prone to fall for quick and easy solutions to problems that require long, hard discipline to conquer. Why do people play the lottery? They don’t want the hard work and discipline of living within their means and saying no to instant gratification. It takes discipline to stay within your budget, get out of debt and save for future needs. You can avoid all that hard work by winning the jackpot! Or, more likely, you will lose a lot of money buying lottery tickets!

Or, why do people fall for diet scams? “Just take this pill and you’ll lose 50 pounds!” They want a quick, easy shortcut around the hard work of a daily diet and regular exercise.

Spiritually, people want an easy way to solve their marriage problems or to rear their kids or to succeed in life. And there are plenty of self-help books or spiritual experiences that promise to solve all your problems. But real, lasting change only comes through disciplining yourself for the purpose of godliness.

Note that the aim is godliness, not personal success. To be godly is to be like God, which comes through knowing Him more deeply. And so the reason you should want to grow spiritually is not just to solve your problems and make life happier. You should want to grow spiritually so that you know the living God in a deeper way, so that your life will glorify the Savior who gave Himself for you on the cross. In the seven areas where I’m going to encourage you to grow, I’m assuming that you know Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord and that your motive for wanting to grow is to glorify Him.

1. Prayerfully write a one-sentence purpose statement for your life and write down a few long and short range goals in light of it.

I’m not going to argue that men in biblical times wrote out a one-sentence purpose statement for their lives, but it’s obvious that they clearly knew where they were going in life. In addition to Paul’s counsel (1 Tim. 4:7), “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness,” he also wrote (1 Cor. 9:23-27):

I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

So while perhaps Paul did not write down his purpose statement (maybe he did, we don’t know), in light of his clear focus and direction, it is evident that he had thought carefully about what he wanted to accomplish for the Lord and organized his life around that purpose. Also, Moses prayed (Ps. 90:12), “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.” So even Moses, living in 1400 B.C., was aware of the shortness of life and the need to use his time wisely in light of eternity.

Years ago I wrote out a purpose statement for my life, which I have modified slightly over the years: “To glorify God by being a godly husband, father, and grandfather and by using my gift of pastor-teacher for the building up of the body of Christ and the furtherance of the gospel.” Your statement will be different depending on your gifts and calling. Glorifying God is the chief aim for each of us. Also, the two Great Commandments, to love God and to love others (Matt. 22:37-40), apply equally to us all. In light of those overarching purposes, write out your own statement.

Then, in light of that statement, write out a few goals, beginning with the most important, that will help you to be a better steward in the following areas: spiritual (including morals and character development); relationships (family, extended family, those without Christ, etc.); ministry (how does God want you to serve Him?); career; finances (providing for your family’s needs; giving); intellectual (developing your mind through reading, thinking, the arts, etc.); and, physical (being a good steward of your body through proper diet, exercise, rest, and recreation).

Don’t attempt too much at once or you won’t do anything! Rather, focus on which two or three goals would most help you to be more pleasing to God and put them into your schedule. Read them over each week. Then evaluate how you’re doing every few months. For example, if you’re not spending consistent time in the Word and prayer, set a goal of one-half hour per day, at least five days per week. Pick the best time of the day to do it and get started. If it isn’t working, figure out why and readjust as needed.

2. Put in place a regular, daily time in the Word and prayer, including some time to memorize Scripture.

Many verses support this practice. All of Psalm 119, but especially verse 11, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You.” Or, Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” 1 Peter 2:2-3, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” It is evident that the Lord Jesus memorized Scripture, because when Satan tempted Him, He quoted from Deuteronomy to defeat him (Matt. 4:1-7).

If you’ve never done so, I recommend reading through the Bible in a year. There are many plans available online, with apps for your smart phone. To read through the Bible in one year takes about 15-20 minutes a day (about 4 chapters). I usually read a Psalm, read some from the Old Testament, and some from the New Testament. You might want to keep a notebook and jot down what you read and how God spoke to you through it. Aim at applying the Word beginning on the heart or thought level (Mark 7:6-8, 21-23). Proverbs 4:23 tells us, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.”

Regarding Scripture memory, the younger you start the easier it is and the longer you will retain it. I can remember many verses that I learned as a child, but I struggle to memorize and retain verses that I’m working on now. Repetition and review are the keys. Experiment with what works best for you. Some find it more helpful to recite verses over and over out loud. Others find it better to write the verses over and over. I’ve never been able to do it, but many memorize whole chapters or books of the Bible. But one thing is certain: God can’t use His Word to keep you from sin if you don’t even know what it says. When temptation hits, you normally aren’t going to have a concordance and Bible at hand to look up the relevant verses! You need it in your heart!

Regarding prayer, it is a constant battle. If you find it difficult, welcome to the club! There are some excellent books on prayer to help you get going. Paul Miller’s The Praying Life [NavPress] is very practical. You can get it for your Kindle or as an audio-book. I’ve listed many other books on prayer on my recommended reading list on the church web site, which also has many of my sermons on prayer. Or, you can benefit by the sermons of other pastors such as John Piper and John MacArthur.

One other practical suggestion on prayer: Make a list of your family members and others that you often have contact with that do not know Christ and begin to pray for their salvation. Just the fact that you are praying for them will make you more alert to opportunities to share the gospel with them.

3. Work on developing godly character qualities, especially in areas where you are weak.

Start with the fruit of the Spirit (memorize these verses: Gal. 5:22-23): “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” If you’re not sure what love looks like in practice, memorize 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Also, since pride is at the root of all of our sins and relational difficulties, work on developing humility. There are many verses on this, but it’s helpful to keep in mind Paul’s rebuke (1 Cor. 4:7), “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” There is a list of biblical character qualities and life skills under the Resources tab on the church web site.

4. Develop a habit of reading solid Christian books that help you grow spiritually.

Paul was an old man in a cold Roman prison cell, about to die. Timothy was hoping to visit him one last time. Paul wrote to him (2 Tim. 4:13), “When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments.” Charles Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 9:668) commented on that verse:

He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!

Puritan Richard Baxter wrote (from the Banner of Truth, Issue 11, June, 1958, p.1),

Make careful choice of the books which you read: let the holy scriptures ever have the pre-eminence, and, next to them, those solid, lively, heavenly treatises which best expound and apply the scriptures, and next, credible histories, especially of the Church … but take heed of false teachers who would corrupt your understandings.

I’ve shared with you before that when I was 18, I was not a reader. I had a friend who was 23 who asked me, “What have you been reading lately?” When I told him that I only read the minimum to get through school, he looked me in the eye and said, “If you don’t read good Christian books, you won’t grow.” I blinked, thought about it, and started reading. I haven’t quit since.

Your first step here may be to sharpen your axe by signing up for a course or working through a tutorial or book on how to read better and faster. I have two book lists on the church web site to help you get going. One is general with various categories and the other is exclusively on Christian biographies, from which I have gained much help. I mark the margins of my books and write notes in them. I almost always have several types of books going at the same time, so that I can read according to my mood: theological or doctrinal books (I have to be alert to read these!); devotional books; biographies; and practical books (on Christian marriage and family, finances, time management, etc.). I don’t read much fiction, partly because when I get into a novel, it requires that I focus on it so that I can remember all that’s happening, which prevents me from reading other books. I read some secular humor for recreation when my brain is too fried for serious reading (P. G. Wodehouse, Tom Bodett, Garrison Keillor, Dave Barry, etc.).

I always take something to read when I go shopping with Marla or have to wait at a doctor’s office. I aim to read 36 books each year (although this year I only read 30), and I keep a brief written record with my comments on the book. If you currently don’t read at all, aim for two or three books this year. Also, I’m now re-reading some of the better books that I first read many years ago, to come at them from the perspective that I’ve gained over the years. If you want to grow spiritually, turn off the tube and start reading!

5. Get into a small group where you can deepen relationships, encourage others, and be encouraged in the Lord.

Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts, “… and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” In my last year of seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks told us, “The things that will most determine where you’re at ten years from now will be the books you read and the friends that you make. Guard them both very carefully!”

The Bible is clear that God has not called us to be Christians in isolation, but in relationship. The analogy of the body of Christ makes this clear. Your hand can’t function if it is cut off from your arm. Every part is necessary and contributes to the health and proper functioning of the whole. If a relationship is enticing you to go back into the world or to engage in sinful activities, cut it off. Ask God for friends who will encourage and stimulate you to grow in Christ.

You need one or two close trusted friends who can ask you hard questions to hold you accountable. Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.” Your friend should be able to ask,

  • Have you spent time daily in the Word and in prayer this week?
  • Have you judged all sinful thoughts and resisted the temptation to look at pornography?
  • Have you given adequate time to your family?
  • Have you cleared up all sins toward your wife (or husband) by acknowledging your wrong and asking forgiveness?
  • Have you done anything or gone anywhere this week where you’d be ashamed to have Jesus Christ along with you?
  • Have you been honest and faithful in financial matters?
  • Have you been a witness in behavior and in word (as opportunities arise) at work or school?

6. Ask God how He wants you to be serving Him in light of your gifts and start serving somewhere.

Get rid of the idea that you’re free to volunteer to serve in the church if you have the time. That notion is not in the Bible. You’re not a volunteer—you’re a slave of Jesus Christ. Slaves don’t volunteer. They do what their master commands them to do. Peter puts all service in one of two categories: Speaking or serving (1 Pet. 4:11). He writes (1 Pet. 4:10), “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” This may include serving in some ministry at church or it may include reaching out to your neighbors or colleagues at work to build relationships where you can share Christ.

7. Set some financial goals to help you become a better steward of the resources that God has entrusted to you.

Jesus said (Matt. 6:19-21), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He goes on to tell us not to seek after all the stuff that pagans seek after, but rather to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. Jesus had a lot to say about money!

Paul wrote (1 Tim. 5:8), “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” He also said (1 Tim. 6:17-19), “Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

Get out of debt. Kill impulse spending. Construct and live within a budget. Give more percentage-wise than you’re currently giving. Build a savings account for future emergencies or planned expenses (car replacement; insurance bills; home and auto repairs; etc.). Begin a retirement fund with a view to how you would like to serve the Lord once you’re freed up from providing a living. Sign up for the Dave Ramsey “Financial Peace” course that we offer.


Again, if this message hits you like a fire hose, don’t let it bowl you over. Ask God to show you the main two or three things that you need to focus on. I pray that all of us will look back on 2012 as a year of growth in the Lord.

Application Questions

  1. Which of these areas do you most need to focus on? How will you begin?
  2. What do you need to eliminate from your normal day in order to begin to implement these principles?
  3. Some might think that following these principles is legalistic. Is it? How can this be avoided?
  4. How can a person who is not motivated to grow get motivated? Where should he begin?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Discipline, New Year's, Spiritual Life

New Years [2013]: How to Know God’s Will (Acts 21:1-14)

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December 30, 2012

With the New Year just ahead and because it relates to our most recent study in Romans 15 concerning Paul’s plans to go to Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain, and because many Christians often wonder about this practical matter, I want to talk about how to know God’s will. All Christians want to know God’s will for their lives, both in major and minor decisions. But it’s not always easy to figure it out and there are conflicting views on how to do it. So I want to help you think biblically about this.

Much of God’s will is revealed in the commands and principles of His Word. You don’t need to pray for guidance in these areas. In fact, you’re sinning if you pray about whether you should do something that God’s Word forbids. We just need to understand and obey the commands and principles that are in the Bible.

But what about the decision to marry Jane or Sally, when both girls love the Lord? What about deciding your major in college, or which job to take, or where to live? There are many such decisions where we want to know God’s will, but there are no verses that relate directly to the decision at hand.

Some depend heavily on subjective feelings, signs, a thought which they interpret to be God’s voice, or a verse out of context. A girl was praying about where to go to college, when she came upon the Lord’s words to Jacob, “Arise, go to Bethel.” Since her denomination had a college of that name, she decided that God was telling her to go to Bethel College. I hope that once she got there she didn’t read Amos 4:4 which says, “Go to Bethel and sin”!

On the other side of the spectrum, Garry Friesen wrote Decision Making and the Will of God [Multnomah Press, 1980], in which he argues that God does not have a specific will for the details of your life. Rather, as long as you act within the moral will of God and follow the principles of biblical wisdom, you’re free to decide as you wish. Thus, if Jane and Sally are both dedicated single Christian women, you’re free to marry whichever one you choose. You’d be wasting your time to ask God to reveal His will, especially through some sign or inner impression. In effect, God would shrug His shoulders and say, “They’re both fine girls. Get wise counsel and do as you please.” Friesen wants to eliminate all subjective feelings, impressions, and “inner peace” from the process of determining God’s will.

Although Friesen levels some valid criticisms against what he calls the traditional view of finding God’s will, I don’t agree with his primary thesis. My main gripe is that if we don’t need to seek God’s guidance for our decisions, then we don’t need to rely on Him in prayer about those decisions. If Friesen is correct, it would undermine many of the examples of answered prayer in the life of George Muller, where he asked God to provide a specific amount and God put it on the heart of a donor to give that exact amount at that time to meet Muller’s need. If Friesen is right, God doesn’t do that. I think that his view moves us toward Deism, where God isn’t directly involved with our daily lives. So, why pray?

But, then, how do we know God’s will? The bad news (or good news, depending on how you look at it) is that there is no simple formula in the Bible for how to know God’s will in situations that are within His moral will. If there were, we would probably apply the formula without seeking God Himself. The good news side of it is that God primarily guides us through our relationship with Him, as we grow to understand His Word and learn to walk in dependence on the Holy Spirit. But since even the best of us (including Paul) are imperfect sinners, it’s an imperfect and often uncertain process at best. But even when we miss God’s will due to our lack of understanding or sin, He is sovereign and gracious to overcome our mistakes.

The uncertainty of this process is revealed in the difference of opinion between godly scholars over whether Paul was right or wrong to go to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had repeatedly revealed to Paul that he would encounter “bonds and afflictions” if he went there (20:23). Some commentators, such as Donald Barnhouse, Ray Stedman, and James Boice, argue (in light of 21:4) that Paul was either deliberately sinning or making a foolish mistake to continue his journey in light of these warnings. But most commentators argue that Paul was right to go. Our text and the history of Paul in Acts reveal some principles on how to know God’s will:

We should walk so closely with God that we discern His guidance as we live in obedience to His Word, in dependence on His Holy Spirit.

With that as a brief summary, I want to work through seven principles for how to know God’s will, some of which are in our text and others which come from Paul’s walk with God.

1. To know God’s will, you must write God a blank check with your life.

It’s futile to speculate about God’s will for your life unless you are totally committed to obeying it. God isn’t a travel agent who arranges your itinerary and then asks, “What do you think?” You say, “I’d prefer not to go to that Muslim country as a missionary. Could you change that to a few years in Hawaii, please?” He is the Lord, and it’s true that He loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life! But you must yield your entire life to Him up front, trusting that His will for you is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:1-2).

Paul had long since done that. In Acts 20:24 he said, “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” In Acts 21:13 he again says, “I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Paul was totally committed to do God’s will, whatever it required.

Signing your life over to God may strike you as a bit scary. What if you do it and He tells you to go to some jungle as a missionary, when you don’t even enjoy camping for a night or two? But, remember, He is your loving Father and He is all-knowing and all-wise. His purpose is to be glorified through you by blessing your life. So you’ve got to begin by trusting Him.

Granted, His path for you may include some severe and difficult trials, including martyrdom. But you can trust that even in these, He will bless you in ways that you cannot imagine if you will trust Him and submit to Him. No one, including the martyrs in heaven, ever wrote God a blank check with his life and later regretted it. You must begin there if you want to know His will.

2. To know God’s will, grow to know Him intimately through His Word and His Spirit.

Paul had known the Lord and walked closely with Him for years at this point. This fact, along with the fact that there is no hint in the text that Paul was being disobedient, leads me to disagree with those who say that Paul was knowingly sinning here. I do think he made a mistake by going to Jerusalem and submitting to the elders’ plan to offer a sacrifice in the temple (see my message on Acts 21:15-40). But Paul’s aim for many years now had been to know Christ (Phil. 3:9-10). He knew God’s Word well, and he walked by the Spirit, not by the flesh (Gal. 5:16). While that doesn’t always prevent us from making mistakes, it is a key factor in determining God’s will.

I’ve been married to Marla for almost 39 years now. On many matters I could tell you what she would want without asking her opinion. I know her will because I know her. In the same way, knowing God’s will in a specific situation is very much bound up with knowing God Himself.

There are no shortcuts or easy formulas to knowing the Lord. It’s a process that requires diligently seeking Him in His Word and in prayer over time. For some reason, God has designed life so that you have to make some of the biggest decisions (career, marriage partner) when you lack the maturity that you will gain later in life! That’s one reason that you should seek the wise counsel of those who have followed the Lord for many years, including your Christian parents! In other words, if you haven’t walked with God long enough to know Him well, take advantage of the wise counsel of those who do know Him well.

If you’re a relatively new believer, you should probably postpone major life decisions, such as marriage, until you get a basic grounding in God’s Word (1 Cor. 7:17-24). You need to know the godly character qualities to look for in a mate. And, if you want a godly wife, you’ve got to be a godly young man, which requires some time in the faith. Don’t make major decisions rashly!

3. To know God’s will, act on biblical principles, not human wisdom.

I’m expanding here on the previous point to say that at times, God’s wisdom and ways are opposed to man’s wisdom and ways (Isa. 55:8-9). Not usually, but sometimes, God wants us to do something that goes against human logic. Earlier in his life, Paul had fled from Damascus to avoid persecution (2 Cor. 11:32-33). But here he is determined to go to Jerusalem even if it means martyrdom. While I think that Paul was wrong to ignore repeated warnings from the Holy Spirit (20:23; 21:4, 11), he was acting on what he believed to be biblical principles.

One biblical principle that governed Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was his strong conviction that in the church there is no Jew or Greek, but we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). He was taking the collection that he had raised from the Gentile churches to the Jewish church as a demonstration of love and unity. Luke hardly mentions this collection (24:17), but from Paul’s epistles we know that it was a big deal to him (Rom. 15:25-32; 2 Cor. 8 & 9). James Boice suggests that Luke’s silence about it may reflect that he was not in favor of the idea (Acts [Zondervan], p. 358). But the principle behind it, the unity of the church, is an important biblical doctrine (John 17). Paul was willing to walk into the face of danger on the basis of his commitment to this truth.

Also driving Paul was his heart’s desire for the salvation of the Jews. This was such a compelling force that Paul said that he would be willing to be cut off from Christ for eternity if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:3)! Because of this compelling desire to see the Jews saved, Paul was willing to sacrifice his life, if need be.

I must add, though, that at the same time, Paul seemed to be going against the biblical principle of submitting to one another (Eph. 5:21) and trusting that the Holy Spirit was speaking through other gifted members of the body. In my judgment, Paul fell into the trap that we all are prone to: his greatest strengths were at the same time his greatest weaknesses. He was strong in his commitment to preach the gospel whatever the cost. But that strength also made him stubborn and unwilling to submit to the godly counsel of others. So when we seek to follow some biblical principles, we need to be careful not to violate other biblical principles.

4. To know God’s will, analyze your gifts, motives, and desires in light of God’s sovereign purpose of being glorified among the nations.

It is possible to be committed to doing the Lord’s will, but to be in the wrong place or position. For example, perhaps Paul could have sent some delegates with the collection, but stayed away himself, and still have accomplished his desire of unifying the church. A key question, which is not always easy to answer, is, “Where can I be the most effective in furthering God’s kingdom in light of my gifts?” For example, I have a heart for missions, but I know that I’m not an evangelist. I’ve asked myself, “Am I more effective to stay in America and instill in God’s people a heart for missions or to go myself?” That’s one reason I’m near a university campus, because I want to see God raise up young workers for the harvest in missions (Matt. 9:38). If I ever sense that I can be more effective by going myself, I’ll be out of here!

Paul was admirable in his commitment to be willing to suffer and die for the name of Christ. But I can’t help but wonder whether someone should have asked him which would be more effective: to be in prison or dead; or to be free to continue ministering as he was? It’s not always God’s will for us to be so committed that we ignore our own safety. As I said, earlier in his life, Paul fled Damascus for his safety, which wasn’t wrong. He escaped from angry mobs in Thessalonica and Berea. He listened to counsel and didn’t go into the arena in Ephesus, where he could have been lynched (Acts 17:10, 13-14; 19:30-31). So I question why he didn’t change his plans in light of the repeated warnings of danger awaiting him in Jerusalem. I can’t help but think that he was unwise.

In addition to our gifts and how we can best be used, we need to examine our motives and desires. Am I truly seeking God’s glory and not my own? Is my heart open before Him, with no secret sins? If I can honestly answer yes, then I should ask, “What are my desires? What do I enjoy doing?” If I’m delighting in the Lord, then I can trust Him to give me the desires of my heart, either by confirming my current desires, or by changing those desires to be in line with His purpose (Ps. 37:4). He is a loving Father who delights in blessing His children by granting their holy desires. So if I’m delighting in Him, it’s legitimate in seeking His will to ask, “What do I enjoy doing?” That may be where I should serve Him.

5. To know God’s will, listen to and prayerfully evaluate the counsel of godly believers.

This is not always easy to do! Our text says that “through the Spirit” these believers told Paul not to set foot in Jerusalem (21:4). As I said, some think that Paul sinned by disobeying the direct word of God. But most commentators soften the phrase to mean that through the Spirit, the believers were expressing their concern and love for Paul. Or they say that the Spirit was warning Paul of the hardship that he would face, so that he would be prepared to endure it. But they don’t see it as the Spirit telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

After Agabus’ prophecy, even Luke and Paul’s other traveling companions (“we,” 21:12) joined in with the locals in trying to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and Paul’s response shows that they were getting to him. But he was so strongly persuaded that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem that he resisted their appeals.

As I said, my (minority) view is that Paul’s zeal for Christian unity and for the salvation of his fellow Jews, coupled with his exemplary resolve (which also caused him to be stubborn at times), in this instance caused him to make a mistake. He should have heeded the repeated warnings of the Holy Spirit through other believers. At the very least, he should have paused to consider prayerfully the counsel of these godly believers. If Paul had not gone, he could have gotten to Rome and Spain much sooner than he did. He could have stayed focused on his calling to preach to the Gentiles.

We probably can’t know for sure this side of heaven whether Paul was right or wrong. But it is comforting that even if he made a mistake, God was still at work through Paul to accomplish His sovereign will. Through Paul’s arrest and incarceration, he got to preach the gospel to both the Roman and Jewish leaders. His prison epistles teach us much about enduring persecution and hardship with strong faith and joy in God. But the principle is, we must listen to and prayerfully evaluate the counsel that we receive.

Thus to know God’s will, write God a blank check with your life; grow to know Him intimately through His Word and His Spirit; act on biblical principles, not human wisdom; analyze your gifts, motives, and desires in light of God’s purpose for His glory; and, listen to and prayerfully evaluate godly counsel.

6. To know God’s will, prayerfully evaluate the circumstances that God providentially brings into your life.

Again, this is not easy! For example, God had now brought into Paul’s life repeated warnings against going to Jerusalem from many different sources. Should he have taken these warnings as God saying, “Don’t go?” Or, could they be to test his willingness to obey God’s will? Perhaps the warnings were to help both the saints and Paul stand firm after he was imprisoned, knowing it to be God’s will in advance. Perhaps Paul’s other circumstances, such as being able to get on ships that got him to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, showed God’s approval for his going there.

As you can see, the same set of circumstances can be interpreted in a number of ways, and so we need to be careful in how we evaluate them. It’s usually not wise to “put out a fleece” to try to know God’s will. Sometimes closed doors do not mean “no,” and sometimes open doors do not mean “yes.” Finally,

7. After prayerfully following all of the above, in dependence on God, follow your best judgment, conscience, inner peace, and convictions, submitting to the consequences.

Ultimately, each person must determine God’s will for himself or herself. You can’t blame others for the decisions that you make. If Paul was right here and his friends were wrong, it illustrates the point that sometimes bad counsel comes from loving motives. It was because these people loved Paul that they pled with him not to go, but he had to go against the wishes of his friends to do what he thought God wanted him to do. But if Paul was wrong (as I think), then he had to submit to the consequences of ignoring the warnings that he had been given.

Although some (such as Friesen) argue that it’s wrong to rely on “inner peace,” I disagree. I grant that having peace about a decision is not an infallible guide. I’ve known Christians who “had peace” about a decision that was sinful! But if the decision is morally neutral and you have followed the steps above in dependence on God, there is a place for His peace to guide you.

The biblical basis for this is in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, where Paul had an open door for the gospel (he lived for open doors for the gospel!), but he had no rest for his spirit because Titus had not arrived with news from Corinth. On the basis of his lack of peace, Paul walked away from an open door for the gospel to go look for Titus. Thus I believe there is a place for inner peace, even though it is subjective and not infallible.


What if you make a mistake in determining the will of God? If you come to realize that your mistake was due to stubbornness, self-will, or pride, confess it and ask God to overrule your mistake. I don’t think that Paul sinned by going to Jerusalem, but I do think that he made a mistake. But God used Paul’s prison years for His glory, and He can use our mistakes and even our rebellion if we submit to Him and seek to please Him.

Remember, the process of finding God’s will begins when you trust Christ as Savior and when you write Him a blank check with your life, being willing to do whatever He calls you to do. If you’ve never repented of your sins and trusted in Christ, you are clearly out of the will of God, because He wants you to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is feeling a peace (or lack thereof) about something a valid factor in determining God’s will? (See 2 Cor. 2:12-14.)
  2. Do we need to seek God’s will for relatively minor decisions (what we wear for the day, etc.)? Why/why not?
  3. How can we know when to go against the counsel of godly people? What principles apply?
  4. Why is putting out a fleece (or asking for a sign) not a good practice when seeking God’s will?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Christian Life, Discipleship, New Year's, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Life