by Ken Puls
“Then I saw in my dream, that the Interpreter took Christian by the hand, and led him into a place where was a Fire burning against the wall, and one standing by it, always casting much water upon it, to quench it; yet did the Fire burn higher and hotter.”
There are times when theology can be very practical, times when what we believe and what we preach to ourselves can have a profound impact on our spiritual well-being. Nowhere is this more true than when we face times of darkness—suffering, persecution, trials, and temptations—times when we are doubting, distressed and unsure how to press on. John Bunyan offers a vivid illustration of this in his allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.
In Bunyan’s story Christian is directed to the House of the Interpreter (the Bible) where he is shown “excellent things” that will help him in his journey. In one of the rooms Christian sees a Fire burning against a wall. He also observes one standing by the fire casting water on it, trying ceaselessly to quench it, yet the fire continues to burn higher and hotter. Christian cannot understand why the fire doesn’t go out. From his perspective the fire has no chance against such a diligent effort to douse its flames.
As Christian ponders the scene before him, he asks: “What does this mean?” The Interpreter explains that the Fire is the Work of Grace, accomplished in the heart by the Holy Spirit. The one who casts water on the fire is the Devil, who would like nothing better than to see the heart grow cold and still. Satan is hard at work in his endeavor, constant in his efforts. Scripture speaks of him as walking about as “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Yet, in spite of his attempts to drown the heart with temptation and doubt, God’s work of grace burns higher and hotter, that is, it is not diminished in heat or light.
This imagery arises from Bunyan’s own experience with temptation as he describes in Grace Abounding:
Then hath the tempter come upon me, also, with such discouragements as these: You are very hot for mercy, but I will cool you; this frame shall not last always; many have been as hot as you for a spirit, but I have quenched their zeal. And with this, such and such who were fallen off would be sent before mine eyes. Then I should be afraid that I should do so too; but, thought I, I am glad this comes into my mind. Well, I will watch, and take what heed I can. Though you do, said Satan, I shall be too hard for you; I will cool you insensibly, by degrees, little by little. What care I, saith he, though I be seven years in chilling your heart if I can do it at last? Continual rocking will lull a crying child asleep. I will ply it close, but will have my end accomplished. Though you be burning hot at present, yet if I can pull you from this fire, I shall have you cold before it be long. [par. 110]
As Christian wonders at the sight of the flames’ perseverance in the face of such opposition, the Interpreter has him come around to see the backside of the wall previously hidden from his view. Here Christian sees the means by which the fire perseveres. A Man with a Vessel continually feeds the fire with Oil. Though water may pour endlessly to douse and discourage it, so also the oil continually revives it and sustains it that it may never go out.
The Interpreter continues his explanation: The Man with the Vessel is Christ and the Oil is His Grace that faithfully maintains the work of God in the heart, even through the dark times of suffering, persecution, difficulty and temptation. We see in Scripture that the apostle Paul faced all of these things, yet his faith held true. Paul was given “a messenger of Satan” that he might be humbled and learn to rely only on the grace of God. He testifies:
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
The confidence that Paul knew from trusting in the strength and power of Christ, he desired others to know as well. Though himself in chains, he wrote to the church at Philippi of his confidence in the power of the gospel:
being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).
We can glean at least three important truths from this lesson.
First, that Satan is ceaseless in his attack upon the believer. Christian has yet to learn in the Valley of Humiliation how fierce the Devil (Apollyon) can be in his hatred and oppression against those who seek the Celestial City. The Interpreter teaches Christian now so that he will be prepared when that opposition comes. We must not be caught off guard in the face of certain oppression and darkness.
Second, that the perseverance of the saints is all of grace. Without the Oil of God’s grace continually applied to the heart, we would quickly grow cold and dark. While we must be diligent in working out our own salvation in fear and trembling, we must remember Christ and set our hope in God who works in us “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). The strength to persevere is not in us, not in our determination, not in our creativity, not in our optimism. We press on only by the grace of God.
Third, in times of darkness, we must remember to “look behind the wall.” The times when it is most difficult to understand God’s work in us and rest in His grace are often the times when we face the fiercest temptation and oppression. Through seasons of spiritual refreshment and growth, our faith may be strong; yet when these are past and times of difficulty arise, we can too easily find ourselves weak and unbelieving. Bunyan himself confessed in the conclusion to Grace Abounding:
I have wondered much at this one thing, that though God doth visit my soul with never to blessed a discovery of Himself, yet I have found again, that such hours have attended me afterwards, that I have been in my spirits so filled with darkness, that I could not so much as once conceive what God and that comfort was with which I have been refreshed. [par 3 in the Conclusion]
Though at times we may face darkness and even lose our sense of God’s presence with us, we must rest in the promise of His Word that He continues to abide with us (though unseen), pouring His grace out for the nourishment of our souls. We may be forgetful of His mercies, but He is never forgetful of our needs. We may not understand all the events and circumstances that God uses to shape our lives, but He has infinite wisdom and is always working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). We must remember this vantage point of faith that permits us to see the hand of God at work holding us, sustaining us and fitting us for heaven, even when we cannot perceive or comprehend it.
The lesson of the fire burning against the wall made its impression on Christian. When he is asked later in the story to recall his experience at the House of the Interpreter, this lesson is the first he mentions. The lesson, in fact, proves essential for Christian in his pilgrimage. Later in the allegory when Christian enters the Valley of the Shadow of Death he becomes confounded with the darkness and is unable to perceive the presence of God with him. He is fiercely attacked and tempted to turn back and forsake the Way. Christian survives the night by trusting in the promise of Scripture:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
Christian knows and trusts that God is with him, even though as he says: “I cannot perceive it.” God has promised: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). This promise is just as certain when God seems (at least from our perspective) to be far off, as when we sense His nearness. We must learn to trust God at His Word and believe as Paul, that whether our path is filled with light or with darkness, “He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12).
by Tom Ascol
We observed the Lord's Supper last Sunday as a part of our worship that included a sermon on apostasy from Jeremiah 18:13-23. In verse 15 the Lord summarizes Judah's apostate condition with this simple charge, "My people have forgotten Me." That succinct assessment is repeatedly made in the first 18 chapters of the book (Jeremiah 2:32, Jeremiah 3:21, Jeremiah 13:25). What an indictment it is! When those to whom the Lord has come forget Him they are doing something that goes against nature, is uncharacteristic of pagans with their gods, and which is spiritually suicidal (see the contexts of the verses listed above).
Forgetfulness is a common, yet deadly spiritual disease. That is why God's Word gives so much emphasis to calling us to remember. Much of the burden of Moses' message to the Israelites in Deuteronomy is warning them not to forget the Lord and exhorting them to remember Him and His salvation. David penned two psalms "to bring to remembrance" (Psalms 38 and Psalms 70).
This same emphasis is found in the New Testament as well. In the midst of their sufferings the Hebrew Christians had to be reminded that those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines (Hebrews 12:5). Peter exhorts his readers to "add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love." Then he explains that "he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins" (2 Peter 1:5-9).
The apostles saw it as part of their responsibility to remind the disciples of Christ of things that they already know. Paul explained to the Roman church, "I have written more boldly to you on some points, as reminding you...." (Romans 15:15). He sent Timothy to Corinth in order to "remind" them of his ways in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:17). Peter plainly declared his purpose in writing to his fellow believers: "For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you... (2 Peter 1:12-13). In fact, he self-consciously wrote his letters in order to encourage his readers to remember truth long after he had died: "Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease" (2 Peter 1:15; see also 2 Peter 3:1).
Part of pastoral ministry is to be given over to reminding God's people of the Lord and His ways. Paul admonishes both Timothy and Titus to do just that (2 Timothy 2:14, Titus 3:1). He also encourages his young pastor friend to "remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel" (2 Timothy 2:8). Forget this and Gospel ministry becomes impossible.
All of these reminders are indictments on our tendency to forget. Which bring me back to the Lord's Supper. Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of Me." Isn't it amazing that we need to be reminded of the sacrificial death of our Savior? What a commentary on the power of remaining sin that resides within believers! What a testimony to the subtle strategies of the devil and the alluring deceptions of the world! It seems inconceivable, doesn't it, that people who have been rescued for the wrath of God and granted eternal salvation would ever forget the One who, at such great cost, brought it about. Yet, that is sadly our tendency. We forget.
That's why we sin. We forget the wickedness of our sin and what it cost our Savior to redeem us from it. That's why we complain and grumble. We forget the greatness of incomparable worth of all that is ours in Jesus Christ. That's why we hesitate to forgive. We forget that God in Christ has forgiven us. That's why we get depressed, lose hope, become joyless and settle into spiritual mediocrity. We forget Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, has conquered every one of our enemies and given us a sure future in heaven.
How gracious and kind and condescending of Christ to give us the ordinance of the Lord's Supper so that by it we will be dramatically called to remember Him on a regular basis! An obedient Christian (who submits to the command to "Do this") cannot long remain a forgetful Christian (because it is done in remembrance of Christ). Forgetfulness is a great enemy to a joyful, faithful Christian life. We must not underestimate our need for encouragement to remember Christ. And we must not neglect the very means that He Himself has given to us to do so.
Over the past few weeks, members of the congregation I pastor have been proclaiming the Gospel in the neighborhoods and apartment complexes in the neighborhood surrounding the church. Executing door-to-door, “cold call” evangelism is not without its challenges in the modern context. Rejections of the Gospel run the gamut from angry to flaky: One man told me that he hated religion, religious “zealots” and believed hell was made especially for those of our ilk; another woman said that she adhered to Jewish religion in which her father taught her that faith in any object, “even a rock,” would punch her ticket to heaven. None of my questions about the monotheism of the Old Testament and the Torah’s prohibition of worshiping idols made any difference. I even told her that the Scripture called Jesus the Rock, but she at last politely said goodbye and returned inside the door to her cats. Still, God’s Gospel is able to subdue both the rebellious heart be it seething or silly. I pray that God used us to plant a seed in these two individuals as well as in others whom we have and will visit.
One question some of our members have posed during our community outreach is a good one, but it is a question which makes many of us of a certain theological tribe a bit squeamish: Is there a good outline we may use to help us recall the Gospel when we are witnessing to lost people? There are many such outlines that are thoughtful, careful, and biblical which have been used effectively—“Two Ways to Live” and “Evangelism Explosion” (both arise from sound biblical/theological perspectives) come immediately to mind and I am certain there are others. But recently, in my regular reading of Spurgeon’s sermons, I have discovered an excellent and pithy approach to the Gospel, one that is fully biblical and establishes well both man’s universal dilemma and God’s antidote in Christ: Spurgeon’s “Three R’s,” Ruin, Redemption, and Regeneration. This past weekend, I taught this to my people to help them understand the entire scope of the biblical story of God’s redeeming love for sinners in Christ. I commend it to our readers for evangelism and to fellow pastors as realities that must permeate their preaching.
Spurgeon called them “three doctrines that must be preached above all else,” and he drew as his text for them “Three third chapters (of Scripture) which deal with the things in the fullest manner”: Genesis 3:14-15 (Ruin), Romans 3:21-26 (Redemption), John 3:1-8 (Regeneration). Why do I think it makes a good evangelism method? Because each of Spurgeon’s three words begin with “R,” making it easy to recall to memory and each text is a key chapter 3 in the Bible, making the references easy to remember, especially in the nerve-busting throes of personal, face-to-face evangelism. Spurgeon’s three R’s:
Spurgeon’s “Three R’s,” whether you use this scheme or not, should undergird all our evangelism. And like Spurgeon, pastors today should make certain that these three doctrines find a regular appearance in the diet of biblical exposition which they feed to their hungry sheep.
*This post is the latest in a series looking at the Sabbath. Previous posts include: Jesus and the Sabbath, The Sabbath and the Decalogue in the OT, a look at God’s Rest as Prescriptive, an examination of the Sabbath as a Creation Ordinance.
Throughout the New Testament the Sabbath principle retains its binding status. However, Romans 14:5-6, Galatians 4:9-11, and Colossians 2:16-17 are all often cited as evidence that the Sabbath is no longer binding. These texts pose perhaps the most persuasive arguments against the Sabbatarian position, therefore several brief points need to be made regarding their interpretation. While a full Pauline theology of the Law and Sabbath is well beyond the capabilities of a single blog post, I do hope to show that these passages are not as iron-clad as the anti-sabbatarians might argue.
Romans 14:5-6 is in the middle of an argument Paul is building against passing judgment upon weaker brothers, specifically regarding Jewish ceremonial laws. Lloyd-Jones explains regarding these ‘Sabbath days’:
“Jewish religious authorities themselves decided that when a certain great festival was coming, it would be good if the people prepared for it. So they appointed a ‘sabbath’, the day before the festival, as a means of preparation. So quite literally, from their standpoint, they did have Sabbath ‘days’; not only the seventh day of every week, but other holy days that they themselves had introduced in order that their observance of the fast or the festival might be more effective.”1
Paul is dealing with the ceremonial and cultic attachments to certain days; he is not abrogating the Sabbath command. Just as people today attach significance to certain days (e.g., Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Lent…), these believers were doing the same. Paul is addressing, “not the Sabbath as such, but certain fast days, certain feast days, certain festival days, that had now become a part of the life of the Jews.”2 Paul concludes regarding these matters, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5b). Regarding the observance of special days, there is to be charity shown in discussing diverse views. But regarding the ongoing Sabbath command, Paul is not here speaking.
In Galatians 4:9-11, Paul is writing against the keeping of days as a necessity for justification. The entire letter is an argument not to return to Jewish practices, namely circumcision, as a means necessary for salvation. Even though the letter speaks of those who “observe days, months, seasons, and years” (v 10), because of the context of the passage and the letter this does not constitute an argument against keeping a Sabbath for non-salvific purposes.
Colossians 2:16-17 is the more difficult passage of the three because it actually contains the word “Sabbath” (v 16). In the letter Paul is urging the Colossians not to be led astray by those who are ‘judging’ their salvation based on their observances of dietary restrictions and special days. The dietary restrictions can be understood, “in light of both the discussion of ethnic identity of Jewish Christians and the preparatory rites for visionary experiences.”3 This combination of abrogated Mosaic ceremonial law plus a Jewish cultism was leading the Colossians astray. The reference to a “festival, new moon, or a Sabbath,” clearly indicates some Jewish background to this heresy. These terms are found together in several Old Testament passages.4 Significantly, “when these terms are listed together in the OT, it often refers to cultic rituals linked with these festal days. If so, Paul is not opposed to the Jewish calendar per se but to the imposition of practices related to these feasts”5 Similar to the Romans passage discussed above, Paul is not removing the command for one Sabbath day of rest per week. He is addressing the ceremonial and cultic patterns that the Colossians were using to “pass judgment” upon believers.
While a full exploration of Paul’s theology of the Law and the Sabbath is way beyond what a blog post could attempt to accomplish, I hope to have shown some introductory arguments to defend against anti-sabbatarians, many of whom like to cite these verses as the final word against any New Covenant sabbatarian notions.
In the coming posts I hope to look at the typology of the Sabbath, historical teachings on the Sabbath, and the impact of Sabbath rest upon theology, particularly on ecclesiology.
 David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 14:1-17 : Liberty and Conscience (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 88.
 David W. Pao, Colossians & Philemon: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament v. 12 (2012), 185.
 Pao, Colossians, 185. See also: H. Ross Cole, “The Christian and Time-Keeping in Colossians 2:16 and Galatians 4:10,” AUSS 39 (2001): 273-82.
Founders Ministries exists to work for the recovery of the gospel and the biblical re-formation of local churches. They have a myriad of ministries that are given to that two-pronged effort, including a church planting network, an online study center, a publishing house, a quarterly journal, regional conferences and events, minister search list, friends list, and church list. In addition to this their website is populated with loads of resources for pastors, students, church leaders and serious Christians.
Contributers to the blog:
Dr. Tom Ascol, Senior Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, FL
Dr. Tom Hicks, Pastor of Discipleship, Morningview Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL (Tom is the team leader of the blog).
Dr. Fred Malone, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Clinton, LA
Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY
Dr. Phil Newton, Pastor, South Woods Baptist Church, Memphis, TN
Dr. Kenneth Puls, Director of Publications and the Study Center for Founders Ministries, Cape Coral, FL
Dr. Jeff Robinson, Pastor, Philadelphia Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL
Jon English Lee, Ph.D. Student, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY