Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5)
(Tim) Here at Church of the Good Shepherd we just concluded a series of seven sermons on Matthew 23. It's unlikely any of us have committed this chapter to memory. In fact, I'm betting no evangelical parachurch ministry or Sunday school publisher has ever assigned a single verse from this chapter as the memory verse for the week. Yet, God's Word being sharper than any two-edged sword, this chapter has burned itself into our unwilling consciences so every one of us knows its recurrent theme: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!"
Each week as I prepared and preached, I was assaulted by my own conscience...
How much I resemble the seminary professors and pastors of Jesus' day. With every phrase from our Lord's mouth, the godlessness of the scholars and shepherds back then assumed greater clarity to me, driving home my own utter bankruptcy before the holy God.
Although everyone thought of them as world evangelists and trusted them to follow up their evangelistic messages with discipleship programs that would lead the souls under their care into the Kingdom of Heaven, in fact the scribes and Pharisees' evangelism and discipleship did the very opposite. It turned converts toward their religious leaders, only--not to God. And learning everything their seminary profs and pastors had for them, they bore the inevitable fruit of becoming "twice the sons of Hell" their famous authors, bloggers, and pastors were themselves.
Join me as I enter my plea:
I say things but do not do them (v. 3).
I tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, yet am unwilling to help carry them (v. 4).
I do all my deeds to be noticed by men (including this one) (v. 5).
My heart skips a beat when I'm invited to the head table at wedding receptions and crisis pregnancy center banquets. And what about being the center of attention each Lord's Day morning (v. 6)? Yes.
I love it when I hear respectful greetings on Kirkwood Avenue and at my son's soccer games (v. 7).
But do I really shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; do I truly refuse to enter in myself and bar others from entering or going in themselves (v. 13)? Holy Spirit, by Your grace and power I plead you make it not so!
I'm scrupulous in tiny matters where law-keeping costs me nothing. At the same time, I neglect the heavier costly parts of God's Law--justice and mercy and faithfulness (v. 23).
In my pastoral work I major in the minors and minor in the majors (v. 24). No, actually I do this everywhere.
I clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside my heart is full of robbery, self-indulgence, dead men's bones, and every kind of filth (vv. 25-27).
On rare occasions I may outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly I am full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (v. 28).
I'm a master-builder of monuments for dead prophets and righteous men (v. 29).
Had I been living in past centuries, everyone knows I'd never have participated in their persecution or bloodshed (v. 30).
Were I to be asked to narrow down my reading recommendations for new pastors to four books beyond the Bible, each accessible and short enough to avoid intimidating men who are able to read English but lack a formal education, I'd suggest In Understanding Be Men by T. C. Hammond (doctrine), The Pilgrim's Progress (sanctification or Christian discipleship), Life Together (the nature of the church), and The Reformed Pastor (a biblical view of pastoral ministry). But when men began to read The Reformed Pastor, they'd be surprised to find the first third of the book given over to a heart-piercing exposition of this danger:
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. (1 Corinthians 9:26, 27)
As a further aid to our own self-examination, here's a helpful homily preached by our friend, James Altena. May God be merciful to us.
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SERMON FOR THE EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER TRINITY
(Rom. 8:12-17; Matt. 7:15-21)
“Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The pairing of the Epistle and Gospel texts appointed for this Sunday is at first a bit puzzling. In the first, St. Paul speaks to the Romans of the indebtedness of believers to the Spirit for their adoption as children of God. In the second, Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount warns his disciples of false prophets who are to be known by their fruits. Any connection between the two would seem to be rather remote. Considered together, however, both passages actually point to the same thing -- the need for dependency, humility, and obedience, as children of the Father, joint-heirs with Christ, and debtors to the Spirit, in order truly to know and love God. They do so by contrasting real and false relations with God -- those that exist in deed and in truth, as opposed to those present merely in word and tongue (I John 3:18).
The first point to observe is the contrast between the children of God, who cry, “Abba, Father,” and the false prophets, who say “Lord, Lord.” As sinners, we like Esau have forfeited our original birthright to intimacy with God (Gen. 25:19-34, 27:1-40; Heb. 12:14-17). We can neither reclaim it again by our own efforts, nor even desire it again of our selves, whose natures and wills are broken by sin. Instead, we must both receive it back again from God as his free gift, and also be led to it by the Spirit, who alone makes it possible for us even to cry out, “Abba, Father.” The false prophets, however, assume and even demand the birthright as theirs by right. In St. John’s Gospel (8:23-59) Jesus confronts this very attitude in a crowd of Jews, whose members indignantly assert themselves to be the children of God as the seed of Abraham and possessors of the Law. But, as St. Paul admonishes the Romans, (2:17-29; 4:13-16; 11:13-24; cf. Gal. 3:7-29), the true seed of Abraham are heirs by the righteousness of faith, not that of the Law. The believing Gentiles are grafted in to the tree and the unbelieving Jews are cut off, not due to any greater merit, but so that the tree might bear fruit (cf. John 15:1-14). Though even demons can recognize Jesus as Lord (Matt. 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39; Luke 4:33-37; James 2:19), they cannot join him in crying out to God, “Abba, Father.” They acknowledge his power and authority, but being separated from the Father by prideful rebellion, they cannot join Jesus in sharing that relation of love and intimacy.
This leads to the second point, which is that we are debtors, not claimants, to God’s grace. The children of God are acutely conscious of their utter unworthiness of the gift of adoption with right of entry to the kingdom of heaven which they have received, and of the incomprehensibly great love of God in Christ Jesus in giving it, by his becoming one with us in his Incarnation and suffering upon the Cross for us. The false prophets, on the other hand, demand it as their due, something earned by their own efforts on behalf of the kingdom. “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works?” The implication throughout is one of self-assertion -- “we,” not God working in us, have done these things; “in thy name,” but not by thy power, have they been done. The attitude is self-congratulatory and defensive, manifesting wounded pride, as if Jesus is Lord only upon their acknowledgment but not in his very Being. And so Jesus says unto them, “I never knew you; depart from me, ye workers of iniquity.”
This leads to the third point, the contrast between good and evil fruit. The primary thing to note here is that the good fruit is first and foremost spiritual, not material. It is one of internal transformation of the heart, mind and will by grace, not one of external accomplishment by will. Such fruit is also fruit of the Spirit, not of ourselves. In his Epistle to the Galatians (5:22-26), St. Paul lists the manifold aspects of this fruit -- love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. The false prophets, however, instead present prophecies, exorcisms, and healings -- external acts, all of which involve exertion of control, power and authority over others and draw attention to the doers. It might be objected that these things are exactly what ought to be offered -- they are, after all, exactly those which Christ himself did. But two essential elements are missing. One is that Jesus as the Son of God is truly Lord, and so exercises such power and authority by divine right. The other is the internal dimension of humility, self-denial, and obedience to the Father present in Jesus, by which he did these works. As St. Paul reminds us in his Epistle to the Corinthians (I Cor. 13:2-3), we can bestow all our goods to feed the poor, and give our bodies to be burned, but if we lack charity it profiteth us nothing. And so, when the 70 disciples Jesus sent forth returned again with joy, saying “Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name,” he said unto them, “Rejoice not that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:1-20).
The fourth and last point concerns the means by which the fruits of the Spirit are realized in us as the children of God by adoption. In short, this can be done only in the same fashion as it was done by Jesus -- by way of the Cross. “Though he were the Son of God, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8; cf. 2:9, 18). Thus St. Paul tells us that “if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” and urges us to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God” (Rom. 12:1-2). It is only by our willingness to enter into and undergo suffering, to unite ourselves to Our Lord’s Cross and Passion, that the fruits of the Spirit, planted in us by the Father as the husbandman, can be cultivated and pruned to full fruition (John 15:1-14; Rom. 11:13-24). This cannot be accomplished, as the Pharisees thought and the false prophets pretend, by the pursuit of outward virtue, but only by inward surrender to grace in faith -- coming unto the Father in trust as little children (Matt. 18:1-6), in utter children, humility, self-denial and obedience. Suffering, though undesirable and unwelcome, is necessary to free us from worldly attachments and make us fit to be partakers of the kingdom -- “no pain, no gain” in popular parlance (Heb. 12:1-11; II Cor. 1:7; Col. 1:12; II Tim. 1:8-9; I Peter 4:12-19). We must suffer with Jesus if we would be glorified with him (Rom. 8:12-21). But suffering is not just preliminary to our patrimony, something we endure in order to get to and earn the glory. Rather, it is the first part of it, the part that works our increasing conformity to Christ. Submission by self-denial to suffering and obedience, though, is precisely what false prophets, as prickly briers, bristle at and reject; and thus the scribes and Pharisees rejected Jesus (Luke 6:43-49). Grapes and figs hold their sweetness within fragile skins, easily torn by thorns and thistles; and so our Saviour’s gentle brow was pierced by a crown of thorns, pressed down by the hands of men outwardly clothed by the Law as sheep of the flock, but who inwardly were ravening wolves devoid of charity (Acts 20:28-31). It is likewise manifest in all those who reject obedience to the Scriptures, which they would presume to master rather than serve, and so wrest them to their own destruction (II Peter 3:16). In separating themselves from God’s Word by disobedience, they cut themselves off from intimacy with him as well and remain unfruitful.
It was to bring us as unworthy sinners back into that fullness of intimacy with the Father that the Son of God humbled himself to be born of a virgin and subject to human parents in obedience (Phil. 2:5-13 ; Luke 2:51-52); was baptized of John and fasted forty days in the wilderness to mortify the flesh; and suffered the agonies of Gethsemane and Golgotha in self-denial. And, most wondrously, he repeatedly humbles himself yet again, in coming to us at each celebration of the Holy Communion to be received by mortal hands and lips, so that in his incomprehensible love toward us he might unite himself to us, cleanse and purify our minds and hearts, and present us as joint-heirs to the Kingdom, that by the indwelling Spirit we might cry aloud with him, “Abba, Father.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.