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 the Son of God DIED to pay the penalty. Let me say that again. The Son of 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.

Looking back on James “Bebo” Elkin’s fruitful career with RUF

In preparation for writing my article on the history of RUF, I had the honor of interviewing James “Bebo” Elkin, one of the founding fathers of Reformed University Fellowship. Bebo Elkin, along with Mark Lowery, Jimmy Turner, Ford Williams, and Bill Smith are the men most responsible for bringing RUF into being. This group formed out of a group of friends who attended Belhaven College together in the 1960s. They worked together in the leadership of the Westminster Fellowship (of the PCUS, hereafter “WF”) at Belhaven. It was there, through WF, that these men got a taste for campus ministry. After Belhaven, the friends moved on to Reformed Theological Seminary.

After graduation, Mark Lowery was called to work with WF at the University of Southern Mississippi. Unlike many of the WFs across the country, WF at USM was conservative and faithful to the gospel. At the time, most of the WF campus ministries had become very liberal and were teaching a type of social gospel. To help with the work of reviving the campus ministry at USM, Lowery brought in a friend from seminary, Bebo Elkin.
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RUF: A Vision for Reformed Campus Ministry

“RUF? What’s that?” As a college student I was asked that question many times. RUF, or Reformed University Fellowship, was the hub of my college life. It was where my friends were. It was my safe haven away from home. It was what I looked forward to all week. But most importantly, it was where I matured in my faith and learned to love Reformed doctrine.

And that was the point. When RUF, also known as Reformed University Ministries (RUM), was first started, the goal was to equip college-aged covenant children in the faith, to reach out with the gospel to unbelievers on campus, to teach college students how to develop a Reformed world-and-life view, and to funnel these students back into the churches ready to serve. This was the dream of men like Mark Lowery, Ford Williams, Jimmy Turner, and James “Bebo” Elkin.

In the early 1970s, the world was in upheaval. Politically and culturally, the United States was transitioning away from the “good old days” of post-war America. Denominations like the PCUS were trending towards the social gospel and away from traditional Reformed teachings like inerrancy of Scripture. It was during this time that the PCA was formed. Along with a new denomination, a desire for a new campus ministry was born.

On campus at the University of Southern Mississippi, Mark Lowery was feeling called to campus ministry. He was particularly concerned with how to carry out campus ministry from a Reformed perspective.

The idea of taking the institutional church to the campus was not novel to Lowery, who had attended a Westminster Fellowship (PC-US) while in college at USM. Nationally, however, the Westminster Fellowships on most college campuses had succumbed to social gospel ideology. At Southern Mississippi, the Westminster Fellowship had remained biblically sound, but had not known much recent success. Parachurch groups were now in vogue. In 1971, Westminster Fellowship at USM found itself without a campus minister and approached Lowery, though he was not ordained. (Joe Maxwell, A History of RUM at the Millennium, [Atlanta, Georgia: Reformed University Ministries, 1999], 16)

One of the biggest challenges in the early years of RUM was convincing the denomination that a church-based campus ministry was worth their time, money, and effort. The prevailing opinion in the PCA was that campus evangelism and discipleship should be left to the efforts of parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity. Others, such as Mark Lowery favored a “Presbyterian and Reformed approach.” The report from the Sixth General Assembly stated his reasoning:

This church-based approach “commends itself to many because it promotes a ministry entirely agreeable to the doctrinal standards of our church. This may, in turn, result in greater fruitage of young life in dedication to Reformed-oriented spiritual life, Reformed doctrine, and an evangelistic outreach agreeable to Reformed doctrine. It may properly induce to membership in distinctly Presbyterian and Reformed churches, including the Presbyterian Church in America. (Ibid., 26)

Mark Lowery wanted a campus ministry where local presbyteries sponsored local campus ministers who would “equip students to serve” and “reach students for Christ.” The 1979 Manual for Campus Ministries set forth the goals that Lowery had developed in his work on campus at USM. The goals included growth in grace, evangelism and missions, fellowship and service, and a biblical world-and-life view. Continue reading

Indelible Grace: The Music of RUF

My first experience with RUF was the summer conference at Panama City Beach in 1994. I have very fond memories of that trip. That conference was also my first exposure to RUF music. I had been in youth groups, sung on praise teams, and listened to countless hours of contemporary Christian music, but RUF music was distinctly different. The melodies were easy to sing and beautiful to listen to, but the words were absolutely wonderful. The first two RUF hymns that I learned were Psalm 130 and Give to the Wind Thy Fears. Here is the first stanza of Psalm 130:

From the depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation;
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication;
If Thou iniquities dost mark,
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
O who shall stand before Thee?

And Give to the Wind Thy Fears:

Give to the winds thy fears,
Hope and be undismayed.
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God will lift up,
God will lift up
God will lift up thy head

These hymns were so moving. I was so impressed by the rich vocabulary. These were not typical praise songs. I couldn’t wait to learn more. What I discovered was that there was a move within RUF to bring old hymns, many almost forgotten, back into use, some with new music. Men such as Chris Miner, Darwin Jordan, and Brian Habig were instrumental in this new venture. Kevin Twit helped take the RUF hymns to a much wider audience. Continue reading