The God of Peace

The second Advent focus is peace. Peace means so much more than the kids are quiet and not arguing so I can read my favorite book. It’s also more than an absence of war between nations. What follows is an article I wrote a few years ago about the true meaning of peace.

In November 2012, my family and I went to College Station for an RUF (Reformed University Fellowship) reunion. RUF has been on campus at Texas A&M for more than 25 years. The best part of the whole weekend was hearing my former campus minister, Chris Yates, preach. I am so thankful for him and his family and for all I learned in my years at RUF.

Pastor Yates preached from 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24:

Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass.(NASB)

While I’m not going to summarize the whole of his excellent sermon (you can listen to it here), I want to share and expound on one of the points he made.

Pastor Yates opened by discussing what it means that God is a “God of peace.” Since it comes in the opening or closing parts of Paul’s letters, it is easy to skim over it and not really consider the importance of those words. What kind of peace is Paul referring to? Political peace? No, there wasn’t political peace in Paul’s day any more than there is today. How about world peace? Is there world peace? Was there then? No, there isn’t and wasn’t. Well, since Paul isn’t lying, it must mean something else. What other kind of peace is there?

Pastor Yates then pointed us to the verse in Luke 2:14:

Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased. (NASB)

And then to the hymn, Hark the Herald Angels Sing:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”

The peace that Paul refers to is the peace of “God and sinners reconciled.” What joyful news this is! As the country preacher once said, “God ain’t mad no more!”

This was such a timely reminder for me. I had had a particularly difficult week, and not just the disappointing election results. In troubled times, it is easy to despair. But when we remember that God, through the work of Christ, has defeated sin and death and has reconciled us to Himself, we can lift our eyes and rejoice. When we remember that God is still at work, in the world and in our lives sanctifying us, we can be at peace. Because we are at peace with God, we can be at peace in our lives. What better news is there?

In our culture, it’s in vogue to treat this glorious gospel message with disdain, and not just outside the church. Plenty of scholars, theologians, and pastors will say that it’s wrong to focus on the salvation of God’s people. As Peter Enns has said, “The gospel is not about how you get saved.” They say we’re missing the big picture of the work that God is doing to redeem the cosmos. As Dr. Tim Keller has said:

The whole purpose of salvation is to cleanse and purify this material world. … [T]he whole purpose of salvation is to make this world a great place. … God sees this world as not a temporary means to an end of salvation, but actually salvation is a temporary means to an end – to the renewal of creation. Saving souls is a means to an end of cultural renewal.

It seems to me that while it is certainly true that God is at work in the world and that there is an ultimate renewal/restoration/re-creation coming that will include the whole of the creation, that as a culture we’ve lost sight of the depths and seriousness of our sin. The weight of our sins, from Adam down to the believers yet to be born, was so severe, the cost of our sins was so high, the chasm between God and man brought about by our sin was so great, that God Himself DIED to pay the penalty. Let me say that again. God DIED. Because of me. Because He LOVES me. Because He has called me by name and written my name on the palm of His hand. Do you not feel the weight of that? Is there anything that could possibly be better news?

Apart from Christ, we are sinners, separated from God, bearing the weight of our sins, unable to save ourselves, but that’s not the end of the story. The God of peace has come, has redeemed His people, is at work sanctifying them Himself, and will come again to present them as holy and blameless. This Sunday, I was reminded of His love for me, of all He has done, is doing, and will do for me. Oh, what joy!

When we sang “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” that Sunday, these words struck me anew:

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.

Thank God for the peace He’s given us through Christ!

Struggling to be Free or Free to Struggle

As hard as it is for me to believe, it’s been nearly twenty years since I started college. As I’ve written before, the best part of college for me was RUF: Reformed University Fellowship. My campus minister, Chris Yates, was such a blessing to me and to all of us in the Yates’ years at Texas A&M. There are a handful of illustrations or phrases that I remember from those wonderful Wednesday night meetings, but there is one that has made such a mark in my life that I’ve probably mentioned it in every Bible study I’ve been in since:

Are you struggling to be free or are you free to struggle?

So what does it mean? Well, it has to do with the work we do as Christians to fight against our indwelling sin. As Christians, we will struggle, that’s a given. However, it’s important to know why we struggle. What is our purpose in doing so?

It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of believing (or behaving like) our actions are what make us right with God. What must I do to be saved? By focusing on what we do to save ourselves, we end up as legalists proud of our self-righteous success, or we end up as hedonists having despaired of ever being right with God. Sometimes both, depending on the day. Either way, we are living as if we are struggling to be free of our sin.

This is where a good understanding of justification by faith alone really helps. As the Larger Catechism says:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

In other words, we no longer have to struggle to be free from sin. Christ has set us free, and we are free indeed.

But what does that mean? If we are no longer slaves to sin, and Christ’s obedience is applied to our account, are we free to go out and live lives of depravity? As Paul wrote, “May it never be!”

No, we are not free to revel in our sin, but we are now free to struggle against the sin that dwells within us.

This is where sanctification comes in. The Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as:

[T]he work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Sanctification is God’s work in us through the Spirit. It’s His work that He begins and completes, but part of that work is that He makes us willing and able to fight against our sin nature. This too is wonderful news! Having been made new in Christ, we are no longer slaves to our desires and instincts. We can struggle with our sin, and by His grace, we will have success. It’s important to remember that the process of sanctification is life-long. There will be highs and lows, success and failure along the way.

Through the Spirit and because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are being perfected and will one day be free completely from our struggle with sin. Until then, let’s fight the good fight and not grow weary of doing good! Our salvation is secure. We no longer have to struggle to be free from our sin. But we must not forget that we are free to struggle. And as Paul wrote:

I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 (ESV)

Footnote: Chris Yates told me recently that the quote is probably a Hal Farnsworth original. If you know who said it first, let me know, and I’ll be happy to update the reference.