Is “Killing Sin” on Your To-Do List Today?

cemetary

Well, it ought to be. And, it needs to be.

“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” These are the words of seventeenth-century English theologian and pastor John Owen. Recently, on my study leave, I was reading a book he authored, The Mortification of Sin, which I highly recommend. (Ed. note: This work is available for purchase at places like Amazon, but it is also available for free in digital and audio formats.)

This is an aspect of the Christian life that I think (at age 62!) I’m just getting to understand. It’s a matter of life and death. Mortifying (putting to death) sin is not the same as repentance. Repentance takes place after we’ve sinned. Mortification is dealing with our sin before it deals with us.

A key verse is Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Probably the best way I can get across what Owen says is to share a few quotes with you here.

Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work.

Indwelling sin always abides while we are in this world; therefore it is always to be mortified.

So, believers need to be aware that “sin is crouching at the door” and that “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And, by the help of God’s Spirit, we must be making a fight for our lives.

Two encouraging thoughts as I conclude.

  1. This is a work of God’s Spirit in you (see Romans 8:13 above). Don’t do this in your own strength. Read, meditate, and look to the Scriptures. Ask God for help, talk and share with (and ask for prayer from) other believers.
  2. Your new natural tendency (if you know Jesus Christ) in the Holy Spirit is “to be acting against the flesh” (Owen). In other words, this is a battle, but we’ve been equipped fully to fight it!

So, is killing sin on your (and my) to-do list today? It needs to be. Jesus has set us free. We are going to make it home by his grace. But on the journey, lean on him and make it your daily work to kill sin—preemptively. Romans 8:13 promises that, as you do, you will really live!

Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 WPCA newsletter.

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Singing Is An Act of Faith

Singing is a big part of the Christian life. We sing several times each Sunday, and we read of singing throughout the Bible. Christians are musical people.

When viewed from outside the church, however, all this singing is weird. There’s no other part of life—except, perhaps, birthday parties—that involves as much singing as Christianity.

I notice this whenever we have an official ceremony at Washington & Jefferson College, where I teach. Most of these ceremonies end with the alma mater, a song written to express one’s undying loyalty to and affection for the school. (Most colleges have such a song.) The music begins and everyone stares at the program. If not for the student singers up front, there wouldn’t be much to hear. For those who don’t sing outside the shower, it is a strange moment. I’m supposed to sing these words? To a tune? With my mouth? It’s no wonder most students (and faculty) end up mouthing the words or standing in disinterested silence.

Why We Don’t Sing

For Christians, singing is simply part of the deal.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:1–2)

Paul commands the church to sing as well—see Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–20. He connects this command to thankfulness, being filled with the Spirit, and “making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Singing is part of the way we glorify God as his body.

But, let’s face it. Not many of us are born singers. We are grateful for the word “noise” in the phrase “joyful noise.” We naturally make comparisons, and we feel awkward singing when our skills fall so far short of the worship leaders or soloists in church.

And beyond the lack of talent, singing exposes us. We put ourselves at risk when we sing; there’s nowhere to hide. Those near us hear our wrong notes, missed beats, and bad pronunciation. To avoid embarrassment, we sometimes decide to make a joyful noise internally.

Why We Sing

However, our obedience to God’s command to sing doesn’t depend on our ability. God doesn’t only want singing from the choir.

Think of an analogy. We wouldn’t leave giving, praying, Bible reading, caring for orphans and widows, or loving neighbors only to those who were naturally gifted. If a friend confronted us with the Biblical command not to gossip, we wouldn’t respond, “Oh, it’s okay—I’m just not very good at not gossiping!”

We’re not called to sing because we’re great singers. We sing because God is great and greatly to be praised! And, by God’s design, one of the chief ways we praise him is through song. He is worthy of our song, so we sing!

And as we sing, especially for those not naturally gifted, we exercise faith.

As we open our mouths to sing, we must believe the truth that God is pleased with us. We trust that because of Jesus’s work for us, our Father loves us and wants to hear our voices. Because he is good and tender and faithful, he won’t turn away if we can’t carry a tune.

In a world where we rely on our senses and instincts, this will take some adjustment. We must believe the Bible over our impulse to hide. We need to trust God that our relationship with him does not depend on our performance.

Jesus, the Perfect Singer

If we’re commanded to sing, and if Jesus has perfectly obeyed every command for us, then Jesus is a singer. In fact, he’s the best singer ever.

Think of your favorite hymn or praise song. Or think of the Psalms, most of which were written to be sung in worship by the people of Israel. Jesus has sung and continues to sing these songs of praise to God! His praise to God is perfect, and that obedient praise is credited to us. This is the good news of the gospel!

So when you stand to sing at church this week, don’t hesitate. Don’t worry about your skill. Open your mouth and make your melody, trusting that God loves and accepts you on the basis of his perfect son.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:1–2)

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Rejoice at How God Builds His Church

In 1980, my husband Jim and I started attending a PCA church in Eighty Four, PA. The pastor, Nick Protos, did an excellent job explaining the church government, answering our many questions, and welcoming our family of eight into the small church.

About ten years later we heard that another PCA church was being started in Washington where our children went to school. We prayed about a move to support that sister church. Our pastor Gary Baker gave us his blessing to join the group as an experienced elder and Sunday school teacher. Although we missed the saints in Eighty Four, we dove into the new work with a large commitment to build another PCA church. We willingly cleaned the church, taught Sunday School classes, and made hundreds of phone calls. God blessed our efforts. We even gained a daughter-in-law when our oldest son found a wife in Washington.

When we started at the Washington church, the pastor, Bob Boidock, mentioned his desire to see other PCA churches start from the Washington church. How exciting it is to see Chris and Rick Ferguson called by God to do the same thing in the South Hills that we had done in Washington!

It is always sad to see sisters and brothers in Christ leave our church for various reasons. But God has proven himself many times over. When God calls us for a change, he has many blessings in store for his followers. Our family, now numbering 34, was taught well under the PCA pastors in these churches. As our children spread their wings, it was hard to see our families leave us.

An old friend from the Dutch Reformed Church, Charlotte Dudt, encouraged me as a young mother to focus on raising our future church leaders. We praise God daily for leading us to the Washington church. Our church is strong and always changing. I thank God for the glitter stuck in the carpet, hot chocolate stains in our fellowship hall, and the many little ones that we hear during our worship service. Our job is to prepare our families to be the future church. We may even see some of these children become our church leaders in the future.

Keep our church and leaders in your prayers and wait for the changes and blessings that God has in store.

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The Minor Prophets: Not So Scary

anonymous (2016), public domain

“Let’s read the minor prophets,” said Zack. “Neither of us have.”

I did not want to read the prophets. Four hundred pages of “You broke the covenant, now wham! Terrible judgment is coming.” But Zack prevailed (I didn’t have much of a case to skip an entire genre of Scripture). We didn’t set out to do a detailed study, just to know what was written.

As we read through Hosea, the first minor prophet, I found a lens through which to read the rest of the prophets: God’s wrath is so great because his love is so great.

Hosea is best known for the love story between Hosea and Gomer. Did you know that the whole encounter is only the first three out of 14 chapters? I didn’t.

The book illustrates God’s great love for his people through several metaphors, beginning with the marriage of Hosea to the adulterous Gomer to symbolize God’s faithful love to faithless Israel, who were mixing pagan religion into the worship of the one true God. God goes on to call to Israel as a loving parent to his son (Hosea 11:1), a master tenderly hand-feeding his livestock (Hosea 11:4), and a farmer nurturing his plants (Hosea 9:10; 14:5).

The Lord through Hosea describes how he had pursued Israel before resorting to the dire judgment found in Hosea’s prophesies:

For she said, “I will go after my lovers, who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” … And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hosea 2:5b, 8)

Can you hear the aching grief of a scorned lover? Even as Israel pursued false gods, the Lord had mercy—instead of raining down the covenant curses Israel deserved, he lavished love on them—and Israel attributed their comfort to the pagan fertility gods. Hosea recounts that “The more [Israel’s] fruit increased, the more altars he built; as his country improved, he improved his pillars,” and while for a time God had mercifully withheld judgment, “now they must bear their guilt” (from Hosea 10:1-2).

The story of Hosea and Gomer is followed by seven chapters enumerating Israel’s sins and describing the judgment to come, coming to a devastating crescendo of utter desolation:

Therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-arbel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children. Thus it shall be done to you, O Bethel, because of your great evil. At dawn the king of Israel shall be utterly cut off. (Hosea 10:14-15)

And then, in the very next verse, it’s as if the Lord of the universe’s voice breaks with grief. “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” he says, “and out of Egypt I called my son. … Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them” (Hosea 11:1, 3). The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob laments that after centuries of covenant relationship, it has come to this. He has wooed Israel as a lover, nurtured and raised them as a parent, and now he must discipline them as their God. Chapters 12 and 13 lay out Israel’s further sin and due judgment, and it is ugly and bloody and sad.

The book of Hosea concludes with an impassioned call to even now return to the Lord. He takes no delight in destroying his beloved (see Hosea 11:8) but desires to restore Israel to covenant relationship with himself. “I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them,” the Lord promises. The heat of God’s anger is exactly equal to the fire of his love. If he loved his people less, their unfaithfulness to him would be less offensive. But his love is fierce, and thus so is his discipline.

Were God a human, we would label these swings from judgment to compassion capricious, even vindictive. But God reminds us that “I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). God is not lashing out at Israel in a rage; he is pursuing a relationship with his people, first through mercy, and now through discipline (Hosea 5:2; 7:12; 10:10).

Our Lord still pursues a relationship with his people, no longer through prophets but now through his Son, Jesus (Hebrews 1:1). In Jesus’ perfect life on earth, we see what a life of covenant faithfulness would look like–and how short we fall in comparison. In Jesus’ death on our behalf, we see all the curses, all the divine wrath described in the prophets, that our sin still deserves. Under the new covenant we see God’s justice and his love united at the cross, as the wrath of God is poured out, not on us, the unfaithful ones, but on Jesus, God’s own son. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that we, the faithless ones, could be called the bride of Christ, and we, the ungrateful children, could be called the sons of God.

Zack and I are still working through the minor prophets. I’m still pretty intimidated by them. We often lean on our study Bible notes for historical context and interpretive support. There is a lot of judgment—but also a lot else: persistent faithfulness, deep mercy, and relentless love.

Called Inside

Circe Denyer, public domain

The evening was unusually warm for early April. Large fans hummed to the right and left of the communion table. We could see them oscillating in unison, but their breeze never made it to the choir loft where we rehearsed Mozart’s Requiem for First Presbyterian Church’s annual spring concert. The large double doors at the entrance were propped open, inviting night air to enter the sanctuary like a beautiful spring bride, ready to make her way down the aisle.

Throughout my four years at W&J College, I went home nearly every weekend, so I was an infrequent face in the congregation of this church. However, the pastor and I built a strong friendship, and my music professor often spoke of the high-quality choral performances at First Presbyterian, encouraging students to participate. That’s how I found myself in a choir loft on an April evening, working to perfect the alto line of one of the most beautiful pieces of choral music in the world.  

A choir rehearsal—especially of an intricate, complex piece—can be a frustrating exercise in Red Light, Green Light. Sometimes, only a bar or two passes before the conductor stops everyone for a series of corrections. Off we go again before coming to a full stop once more, only inches down the score. But from time to time, especially in the final weeks before a performance—as we were that night—the music is allowed to stretch and soar. Notes follow notes until the choir hears what all its diligence has finally created.

As our voices rose and fell and blended into one instrument, our sound escaped the loft, burst from the church, and spilled onto the street. Apparently, our music circulated outside, for soon a group of passers-by entered the double doors, compelled by the beautiful sound. The young people, perhaps in their early twenties, elbowed and nudged one another, teasing as they entered a place they didn’t expect to be. They looked out of place in their t-shirts, tank tops, and baggy shorts. One removed a ball cap.  Another ran his fingers through his hair. They settled in the last pew, their laughter and jabs turning to silence and stillness as Mozart worked his charms.

Compelled. Sometimes we are drawn forward without our express permission. We simply cannot help ourselves. We are compelled to take steps we had not planned, to stop when we intended to go, to wait when we were eager to proceed, to speak when we would normally have remained silent, to reach out when our personality would typically tell us to withdraw, or–like those young folks on the street—to enter when we would have walked right by on any other evening. God compels us, his chosen children. Far bigger and mightier than Mozart, the God of all the universe calls us by name to come to him. By his Holy Spirit, he reaches into our hearts and tugs us toward Christ—a beckoning we simply cannot resist. Christ reminds us in John 6:37 and 44, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And “I will raise him up on the last day.”

Oh, I praise God for drawing me, a sinner, close to himself! The very inertia of my corrupt humanity would have naturally kept me dead in my sin. I could never please God in my regular old human self (Romans 8:7-8). I needed him to pull me away and interrupt what I would surely have been.  

I think of a long-ingrained habit, like putting on my seatbelt. I do it without thinking or planning. Something out of the ordinary must occur to stop the automatic urge to reach over and pull the belt across before driving away from the curb. Sometimes one of my children calls out for help with his car seat, or someone requests that I insert a CD in the stereo or roll down a window. I am compelled to step outside of my routine, and for a moment, I’m pulled out of autopilot.  When I snap back to my task, I feel surprised to find myself unbuckled. Thank God that he has the power to interrupt the automatic path of sin, compelling me and sinners throughout time to draw close and walk beside him toward holiness when our nature would have wallowed in the dark for eternity. We may look at ourselves—post conversion—in grateful awe, knowing that we would never have reached salvation without his irresistible grace.

The impromptu audience in the last row of First Presbyterian may have walked past the pretty church on many warm evenings. They likely lived nearby and socialized in the neighborhood, simply enjoying the night with friends. Perhaps they were heading to meet up with other people or to catch a ride elsewhere. But on that evening, the sweet strains of the Requiem stopped them in their tracks, compelling them to postpone their plans for something far sweeter.

May our Lord always compel us to the sweet beauty of his embrace, a call we cannot resist.  As we walk through lives that are complex and often fast paced, are we waiting in the stillness for his voice?  Listen, my friends. Allow yourself to hear and know his undeniable voice.