Tuesday, December 30, 2008

At the Year's End (1): We live by promises not explanations

A re-post from May 2008:

It is a great privilege to minister to people going through deep and dark waters. The apostle Peter in writing to the elect exiles of the dispersion gives us a masterly piece of pastoral theology to help us (pastors) in this regard as we minister to God's people (1 Peter 1:3-9).

The dominant note in the opening section is of rejoicing in the great salvation that we have in Christ.

There is a new birth by God's mercy into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1:3). The new beginnings found in conversion and the empty tomb are preparatory for the new creation. Peter uses the Old Testament language of "inheritance" to describe this future glory. Yet, unlike the promised land (itself a type of the new creation), this inheritance in heaven is "imperishable, undefiled, and unfading." This has been reserved for God's people (1:4).

Like the Puritan Richard Baxter we would do well to meditate on this life to come. Naturally we fear that we will not make it through the wilderness and arrive safely at our heavenly rest. So Peter reassures us. Weak, feeble and sinful as we are, by God's power we are shielded by faith (preserved by God's power so that we can persevere by faith) until we get there (1:5).

One appreciates the wisdom of the Westminster Confession on these matters (WCF 17:1, 3):
They, whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved.

Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein:whereby they incur God's displeasure, and grieve His Holy Spirit, come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves.
With such great realities accomplished for us and in us, with grace now and grace to come (indeed grace forever) is it any wonder that we have joy in our Father? The tone of Peter's emphasis is captured in the Heidelberg Catechism Question 58:
What comfort do you receive from the article "life everlasting?"

That, inasmuch as I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, I shall after this life possess complete blessedness, such as eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man, therein to praise God forever.

But alongside this dominant note, there is another experience being played out in a minor key. We not only have joy in our salvation but also grief in our present trials (1:6-7).

God's people are not immune to life's sorrows. If only the grief that we feel was caused by persecution. But Peter says that there are "various trials" that grieve us (1:6). Peter provides some explanation of the purpose of these trials. He does not give us what we sometimes want, an exhaustive explanation of why things have happened to us. We live by promises, not explanations. God does not owe us explanations.

John J. Murray tells the story of a minister in the North of Scotland who suddenly lost his spiritually minded wife. As he prayed that night in the presence of his friends he said "If an angel from heaven told me that this would work for my good I would not believe him but because your Word says it I must believe it."

In the midst of this grief God is refining our faith so that our sin will be exposed and that we will forsake it and trust him as both Almighty God and our Faithful Father. Of course there is more to be said about suffering than this. Nevertheless Peter counsels God's people to see God's design in their trials. The impurities that remain in us are shown up so that our wholehearted trust in the Triune God will be purified. And in the midst of grief the preciousness of that faith, "more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire," will be shown for what it is (1:7).

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