Tuesday, April 26, 2016

God's Chief Attribute

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was pastor of an Anglican Church in the tiny village of Hodnet, England; in fact, he ministered at the same church once led by his father. Between 1811 and 1821, Reginald wrote 57 hymns, which he longed to see published. However, the Anglicans hadn’t yet adopted the singing of hymns in worship. In 1823 his superiors reassigned Heber to the mission field, so he packed away his hymns in an old family trunk and sailed to India.

Heber labored with intensity on foreign soil for a few short years before passing away at age 42. He never had the joy of hearing congregations sing his hymns. However, a few years later Heber’s widow was rummaging through that old trunk and found his long-forgotten songs of praise. Heber’s hymns were eventually published and at least one is still famous to this day:

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Only Thou art holy;
there is none beside Thee,
perfect in power, in love and purity.”[1]

Heber was inspired to write that hymn after reading the incredible passage recorded in Isaiah 6 where the prophet gets an earth-shattering vision of God on His throne:

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

Notice the three-fold refrain of the angelic beings focuses on God’s holiness. Admittedly, we don’t hear much preaching these days about God’s holiness. If you had to define this indispensable divine attribute, how would you do it?

The Hebrew word for holy, qodesh, is a term that means “separate from.”  Put another way, God is “wholly other than” everything else in existence.  This means that God is totally and utterly distinct from all creation and evil.  Morally, this means that God is pure and cannot tolerate sin.  God is the standard by which everything else is measured and His holiness puts Him in a class alone.    

Admittedly, when preachers and theologians search for adequate illustrations to convey the concept of God’s holiness we are always at a loss for words.  Even our best writing and thinking becomes quite beggarly. A.W. Tozer once described the problem of talking intelligently about God’s holiness like this:

“Neither the writer nor the reader of these words is qualified to appreciate the holiness of God. Quite literally a new channel must be cut through the desert of our minds to allow the sweet waters of truth that will heal our great sickness to flow in. We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God’s holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God’s power and admire His wisdom, but His holiness He cannot even imagine.”[2]

The subject of God’s holiness is not only intriguing, but utterly terrifying. As believers we desire to know what God is like, yet if we were actually to be put directly into God’s throne room we would find ourselves in what R.C. Sproul called “the trauma of holiness.” The reason is because the closer we mortals get to this holy God the more His purity reveals our iniquity.

God is not just holy, but thrice holy.  The holiness of God is the only attribute of his character that is repeated three times in the Bible.  God is never referred to as love, love, love or mercy, mercy, mercy.  Because God is holy, everything else about Him filtered through that single attribute—His love is a holy love, his wrath is a holy wrath, his goodness is a holy goodness. 

Smoke billowed forth from the temple and even the furniture and inanimate objects in the temple began to quake and shudder because of God’s power (Is. 6:4).  Isaiah had never seen a light and sound show like this before and he was reminded, rather forcefully, that the crown and scepter may have fallen from the throne of Uzziah, but God was still on His throne.         

Isaiah’s only natural response in this scene is to declare judgment upon himself, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5).

In a single moment all of his self-image was completely shattered.  As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of himself. However, the instant he compared himself to the Ultimate Standard, he was utterly ruined.

R.C. Sproul in his book, The Holiness of God has written: “The clearest sensation that human beings have when they experience the holy is an overpowering and overwhelming sense of creatureliness.  That is, when we aware of the presence of God, we become most aware of ourselves as creatures.  When we meet the Absolute, we know that we are not absolute.  When we meet the Infinite, we become acutely conscious that we are finite.  When we meet the Eternal, we know we are temporal.  To meet God is a powerful study in contrasts.”[3]       

It is said that the great Scottish preacher F. B. Meyer was visiting one of his parishioners on a cold afternoon. It was washday, and the clothes were on the line. It began to snow, and soon the clothes did not look so white against the background of the snow. When Meyer remarked about it, the old Scottish landlady cried, “Sir, what can stand against God Almighty's white!”

Getting close to God can be quite painful and uncomfortable, because His character reveals our corruption. If you think getting close to God is going to be an easy and enjoyable process you are dead wrong.  It will shatter your self-concept, annihilate your notions of righteousness and leave you spiritually broken. God’s holiness shows us all our sin in high definition. Thankfully, there is way into His presence—the blood of Christ which cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

Were in not for the imputed righteousness of Jesus, sinners like you and me would be vaporized by a thrice holy God. Without Christ, we might as well try standing on the sun than to approach this holy God on our own merits.  “For God hath made Him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21) –DM

[1] Robert J. Morgan, Near to the Heart of God, (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2010),  April 21.
[2] A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1961), 104. 
[3] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1998), 44

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

David Brainard: A Flame for God

One of the most influential Christians in American history is not exactly a household name. He didn’t have a long ministry, only nine years. Nor did he pastor a megachurch or enjoy being a “celebrity” preacher. In fact most of David Brainerd’s short life was marked by adversity.

Coming out of the evangelistic fervor of the Great Awakening, David gave his life to the Lord as a young man and committed to full-time ministry at the age of twenty. Brainerd felt that God was calling him to minister to a group of people that many in America despised, mistreated and misunderstood—the Native Americans. Virtually on his own, David began a new work among the Delaware Indians of Pennsylvania. But, his first years of ministry were met with incredible hardship and he had no converts to show for his preaching.

He confided to his journal, “My diet consists mostly of hasty-pudding, boiled corn, and bread baked in ashes, and sometimes a little meat and butter. My lodging is a little heap of straw, laid upon some boards . . . My work is exceedingly hard and difficult . . . These and many other uncomfortable circumstances attend me; and yet my spiritual conflicts and distresses so far exceed all these that I scarce think of them.” Despite his continual setbacks and bouts with sickness David remained faithful, writing that he wanted “to burn out in one continual flame for God.” The Lord would answer that prayer, but not before Brainerd’s ministry was blessed.[1]


In 1745 while trying to reach one especially stubborn and skeptical tribe of Massachusetts Indians, Brainerd found himself constantly being watched by their warriors intent on killing him. As he preached to them, the braves raised their bows, but then they noticed a rattlesnake slithering between his feet, raising its head, flicking its tongue, and preparing to strike. Suddenly, the snake uncoiled and glided away. The Indians saw this as a sign from the “Great Spirit” and decided to listen to Brainerd’s message.

It was also during that same outreach, that the missionary started pleading in prayer for a great spiritual awakening among the Indians. He claimed our Lord’s promise in John 7:37-39, that those who believe in Him will experience rivers of living water flowing from within them.

The unfolding year proved very fruitful for his ministry. Brainerd’s Indian interpreter an alcoholic named, Tattamy, was converted to Christ. An immediate change began to take place in Tattamy’s life and the Holy Spirit energized him as he translated Brainerd’s sermons. Hundreds of Indians came to saving faith in Christ and were baptized. Meanwhile, Brainerd became an advocate for the Massachusetts Indians as he helped secure land for them when their property was threatened and soon constructed a church, school, carpenter’s shop, and infirmary for their people.[2]


Sadly, by the fall of 1746 Brainerd was increasingly coughing up blood. The famous theologian-pastor, Jonathan Edwards, brought him to his home in Northampton, MA. There David Brainerd spent his last months, succumbing to tuberculosis on October 9, 1747 at just the age of 29.

After David Brainerd's death, Jonathan Edwards edited and published his diary, describing it as an example of a devotional life “most worthy of imitation.” This diary was to influence many missionaries in future generations, including William Carey and Henry Martyn, who went to India and Jim Eliot, the twentieth century missionary who gave his life ministering to the Auca tribes of Ecuador.

There are many enduring lessons to take from Brainerd’s life but perhaps the most lasting is summed up in a quote that is often attributed to Corrie ten Boom, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, who said, “The measure of a life, after all, is not its duration but its donation.” A short life can have a big impact. When it is all said and done, it is not about simply living a long life; it is about living a life that is full and purposeful. Not how long you lived, but how you lived. You are going to give your life for something. What will it be — a career, a sport, a hobby, fame, wealth? None of these will have lasting significance. In Christ’s Kingdom service is the pathway to real significance.

As Brainerd wrote: “Oh, how precious is time, and how it pains me to see it slide away, while I do so little to any good purpose. Oh, that God would make me more fruitful.” 


[1] Richard De Hann, “The Cure for Self-Pity,” Our Daily Bread, 19 November 2000 <http://odb.org/2000/11/19/a-cure-for-self-pity/>
[2] Robert J. Morgan, On This Day (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), entry for January 3.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

How We Got Sunday School

Robert Raikes (1736-1811) was a well-to-do Englishman who inherited a newspaper from his father, the Gloucester Journal. Because he was a committed Christian, Raikes wanted to use his resources to do good. One day in 1780, Raikes’ newspaper business took him to an impoverished suburb of Gloucester. He was shocked to see so many children “wretchedly ragged, at play in the street.” The squalor and poverty was below “third-world” standards.

Raikes asked a local woman about the children. “Ah, pay no mind to them,” she answered. “Everyone calls them the white slaves of England.” “Slaves?” asked Robert. “They work 12 hours a day or longer in the mills and sweatshops,” the woman answered. “Most of their parents are in prison or dead.” Robert cringed. He knew that if his father had died when he was little, he could have been one of these poor children. “When do they go to school?” he asked. “School? They don't go to school. They have to work to live,” she answered, “and Sundays are the worst. It's their only day off and they run around like wild animals!”

Raikes was burdened because nothing was being done to help these children, without someone taking up their plight they would fall through the cracks. So he set out to make a difference.


He began by hiring some women to set up schools for them on Sunday. Using the Bible as their textbook, the teachers taught the poorest children of London to read and introduced them to the wisdom of the Bible. Soon about 100 children were attending these classes and enjoying lunch in a safe, clean environment. These “Sunday schools,” as they were soon called, touched the lives of thousands of boys and girls.

Even though the children were taught only one day a week, their behavior began to improve. Now they had something to look forward to after working so hard every day. The policemen of the city told Robert that the children weren't stealing and fighting like before.

Robert waited three years to see if his Sunday schools were a success. Then he printed a story about the new Sunday schools. Soon, about 4,000 new Sunday schools were started in towns all over England. By 1831, Sunday schools in Great Britain reached more than a million children.
Robert even used his printing press to publish reading books, spelling books, Bible study books, and copies of the Scriptures for the Sunday schools. Economist and historian, Adam Smith, author of the classic Wealth of Nations, declared that no plan so promising for improving morals had been devised since the days of the apostles.

The vision that God gave Robert Raikes for the poor was born out shock and action—shock because of the depths of his city’s impoverished kids and action to do something about it.

The heart of Jesus was for the poor. “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14). In Matthew 25, Jesus suggests that His followers show a readiness for the His return by helping the hungry to get food, helping the thirsty to get a drink, helping the homeless to find a home, helping the naked to get clothes, and helping the sick or imprisoned to receive comfort (25:35-36).

As we bear witness that Christ is in our hearts, we honor our compassionate Savior by reaching out with caring hands to the poor. How can we do this? There are hundreds of ways. Pay the light bill for a single mother. Put together a “blessing bag” for a homeless person. Start getting involved in your church's kids activities, and if there isn't one then start it. The possibilities are endless. Pray that God will open your eyes to the poverty around you and that He move you into action to be a blessing. -DM


Dave Branon, “Consider the Poor,” Our Daily Bread, 27 September 2015 
< http://odb.org/2015/09/27/consider-the-poor-2/> 

Kelvin D. Crow, Christian History (Issue 53, Vol. XVI, No. 1), p. 36. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

God's Compass

There was an interesting story featured in Smithsonian magazine a few years ago about how a small compass saved the lives of some sailors. 

During World War II, Waldemer Semenov was serving as a junior engineer on the American merchant ship SS Alcoa Guide. On April 16, 1942, the ship was sailing from New Jersey to the Caribbean when a German submarine surfaced and opened fire. Even though the SS Alcoa Guide had no guns and wasn’t being escorted, it didn’t matter. The Germans were using the merchant vessel as target practice. After a torpedo struck the hull, the SS Alcoa Guide caught fire and started to sink 300 miles off the coast of North Carolina.


Semenov and the rest of the crew scrambled into to a wooden lifeboat and an inflatable raft. Half the men made into a wood lifeboat and the other half into a rubber raft. Fortunately, the lifeboat came equipped with a small compass. Semenov and his fellow crew members used the compass to sail west by northwest toward the shipping lanes. After three days, a patrol plane, searching for sailors, spotted Semenov's lifeboat. The next day the USS Broome rescued the men on the lifeboats. In contrast, it took three weeks to find the inflatable raft, which was drifting aimlessly in the ocean with only one survivor barely clinging to life. In all, thanks to that little compass, Semenov and 26 other crew members from the SS Alcoa Guide survived.[1]

In a survival scenario like this, having a compass can save your life. It’s a trustworthy device to tell you what direction to go. The same is true for our spiritual lives. When you are out in the wilderness fending for yourself that’s when we have to stand on His infallible Word like never before. We don’t have to guess or drift around aimlessly, God’s Word gives us guidance and direction in every season of life.

The psalmist reminded God’s people that His Word was a trustworthy “compass.” He likened it to a lamp. In that day, the flickering light cast by an olive oil lamp was only bright enough to show a traveler his next step. The Psalmist wrote, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105). Likewise, God’s word gives us enough light to see far enough to take the next step.


The only problem is that many people don’t consult the Bible until it’s too late. We don’t have the luxury of stopping in the middle of a crisis and saying, “Hold on, let me find a chapter and verse for this.” The best way to prepare for the wilderness testing that is sure to come our way is to be in the book right now, so that when you enter into that time of trial you are equipped with God’s wisdom already and you aren’t fumbling around trying to figure it out as you go.  -DM

[1] Owen Edwards, “A Compass Saves the Crew,” Smithsonian, September 2009, <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-compass-saves-the-crew-40699276/> .