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A Look at a Hard Heart

In Acts 5, the priests in Jerusalem had the disciples arrested for preaching Jesus. But something interesting happened over night while the disciples were in their cells. And this shows us much of the truth of the unconverted human heart.

Acts 5:19-28- 19 But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, 20 “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” 21 And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.

Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. 22 But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, 23 “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.” 24 Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. 25 And someone came and told them, “Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” 26 Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.

27 And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, 28 saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.”

Grab the facts quickly. The disciples were supernaturally taken from the jail. How amazing was this? The guards did not notice that all the disciples had walked out of their cells.

Remember that the Jewish religious leaders were not anti-supernaturalists. They believed in miracles. They taught others the great moves of God from the past. They knew about the exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna, and all the rest. So we are not dealing here with people who did not, at least in general, understand that God might move in a situation.

The priests send the guards to bring out the disciples for trial. But the jail is empty. The guards have no idea what happened. All is locked up tight. Then they find out that the arrested men are in the courts of the temple preaching Jesus.

What should these men have done? They should have at least asked the disciples how they got out. They should have at least investigated to see what supernatural thing might have been going on. They should have let this move of God make them a little hesitant to continue on the same path they started down the day before.

But what do they do? They call the disciples in, and they pick up their questioning right where they left off. “We told you to stop talking about Jesus.” They flat ignored a miracle from God. Why? The working of God did not fit the world they wanted to live in. So, they just pretended it did not happen, and they went forward with their questioning. Later, even though they know they have no leg to stand on, they beat the disciples and demand that they stop preaching—a demand with which the disciples cannot comply.

But the thing that grabs my attention is the clear picture of a human hard heart. The priests had evidence of the moving of God. They had a reason to slow down. They had a reason to listen to Peter and the others. But they would not. It is as if they closed their eyes, plugged their ears, and cried out, “La la la la, I can’t hear you!”

The human heart, if not moved by God, is stone dead to the truth of the gospel. Realize that. Let it make you pray for the regeneration of those you want to see saved. And let it make you thank God if you are saved. Thank God for acting on your heart, because, without his supernatural working in your soul, you would be just like those men who ignored the evidence so as to ignore Jesus.

A Big No-No

One of the things that many in the world find distasteful about biblical Christianity is its exclusivity. Some champions of openness and tolerance in the world would love to have all of society turn against Christianity for its fundamental claim that only Christians have saving grace. Apparently tolerance and openness only includes being open to and tolerant of beliefs that appeal to the self-appointed champions of such openness. And any who would argue against the modern view are guilty of a major societal no-no.

So, let’s ask, is Christianity as exclusive as some would say? Do Christians actually teach that only those who come to Jesus are saved by God? We’ll look to one simple passage of Scripture for the answer.

Acts 4:11-12 – 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

The two uses of the word “no” in this passage are tremendously significant. There is salvation in no one else. There is no other name by which we must be saved. This exclusivity is a social no-no in the left-leaning United States of today, but it is the clear teaching of holy Scripture from the very beginning.

God’s word indicates to us, by the use of the word saved, that we need salvation. We need grace in order to be rescued from a danger we face., And that rescue comes only in the name of Jesus. That rescue cannot be found in any other name than that of Jesus. The Son of God who was crucified and who rose from the dead is our only hope.

So, yes, in our culture, it is a big no-no to say that people need salvation. It is a big no-no to say that salvation is only found in biblical Christianity in the name of Jesus. And it makes me sad to think that society has deemed it so. But there is an even bigger no-no in the word of God. There is no salvation other than in Jesus. There is no other name in which we must be saved. We have no hope if we reject the grace of God in Christ to turn to any other system of beliefs.

Is this intolerant? Is it intolerant of a local university to say that there is no way to graduate other than to fulfill the course requirements? Is it intolerant of the movie theater to say that there is no way they will let you watch the movie other than by having a ticket? Is it intolerant of Taco Bell to say that there is no other way for me to have a burrito than by paying for it? Is it intolerant for our van not to continue to run without gasoline?

We live in a real world that constantly shows us that there are requirements that must be met, conditions that must be fulfilled, if certain outcomes are to occur. God’s word says that there is only one way for human beings to be right with God. God set that requirement. And regardless of its social popularity today, God has every right to tell us what that requirement is.

A Life-Changing Little Line

I want to show you a simple phrase, a little phrase, but one that is paradigm-shifting for all who believe it. The word of God says some major things that are packed into little lines. But, I promise you, if you will believe this, it will change you.

Psalm 18:30

This God—his way is perfect;
the word of the Lord proves true;
he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.

Speaking of our God, the psalmist says, “This God—his way is perfect.” For many, in a daily bible reading, or perhaps even right here, there will be a temptation to assume that we have thought this through as far as we need to. How about taking a moment today to stop and consider that little phrase a little more seriously.

Our God’s ways are perfect. What does that mean? All that God is and all that god does is perfect. His actions, his motives, his plans are perfect. There is no thing that the Lord has ever done or will ever do that is not absolutely perfect.

How does that compare with you? Can you say that your way is perfect? Can you declare your intellect or your wisdom to be flawless? You cannot say such things if you are both honest and sane.

So, stop and think. Your way is not perfect. God’s way is perfect. This means that we cannot wisely question the ways of the Lord. We cannot sit in judgment over what God says is right. We are fools if we think that we know that which is good better than does the Lord.

And how do we find out what God desires or what God says is right? We look to the Bible, about which the psalmist says, “the word of the Lord proves true.” God’s way is perfect. God’s word is true. Thus the Scripture is the true word of the perfect God.

Our world is so messed up. We battle against all that God says is good and right. Many people, even people I love, would look at the word of God and weigh it in their minds to determine whether or not they are willing to give God’s ways their stamp of approval. We look at Scriptures about households, about family, about gender, about sexuality, and we say whether or not we approve of the Lord’s ways. We look at Scriptures that tell us of God’s sovereign power, of his way of salvation, of his righteous judgment, and we decide whether or not we like how God works.

Dear friends, hear this truth again. God’s way is perfect. His word is true. It is not my place or your place to judge whether or not we think God’s ways meet our standards. We are flawed. God is holy. Our right response to the word is to surrender to the God whose way is perfect, to trust in his word that is true, and to take refuge in the Lord for life.

God Sent Me-Some Thoughts on the Sovereignty of God and the Freedom of Man

How do you deal with the issue of the sovereignty of God and the freedom of man? Of course we know that this issue has been one of struggle and controversy among Christians for centuries. The issue can seem quite mysterious. Scripture does not always let us know how the sovereign hand of God and the choices of humanity work. But some places in Scripture do a lovely job of pulling back the veil and letting us see.

Consider the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. In chapter 37, we learn that Joseph’s brothers hated him. They hated that his father preferred him to them. They hated that Joseph had given a bad report of their activity to their father. They hated that Joseph told them of dreams in which he was in a place of honor and authority over them. And so the brothers determined to do something about it.

You remember the story, don’t you? Joseph’s brothers first decided to kill him. Then they changed their minds and determined to sell him to slave-traders. And just like that, Joseph was on his way to Egypt.

Now, whose choice was it to send Joseph to Egypt? We all would say that Joseph’s brothers chose to send him to Egypt. They, by their free will, did exactly what their hearts longed to do. They certainly sinned against God and committed what, in later Scripture, would be ruled a capital offense.

But look at the words of Joseph to his brothers when they were reunited.

Genesis 45:4-8 – 4 So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Three times in that paragraph, Joseph says to his brothers that God sent him to Egypt. Three times, Joseph made it absolutely clear that his presence in Egypt was a sovereign work of the Almighty. Three times is significant.

So, who sent Joseph to Egypt? Whose choice was ultimate? According to Joseph, God’s choice, God’s hand, God’s sovereignty was ultimate. But, in chapter 37, it was clear that the brothers were choosing based on their personal desires, acting according to their understanding of their own freedom. In 42:21-22, the brothers admit that they saw Joseph’s distress and made a choice to sell him anyway. They knew they were guilty. They made no indication of being forced to act under compulsion against what they would have wanted.

So, we see two things. We see that the brothers acted exactly as they desired. They felt free. They did exactly what they naturally would have wanted to do. And yet, according to a greater understanding, according to God’s word, they acted under the direct hand of God to do what God sovereignly determined to do.

When we discuss God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom, do not let yourself be confused. One of the big objections to the doctrine is that, if God is sovereign over our affairs, he must be forcing people away from himself by his sovereign decree. The objection is that God must be reaching into the hearts of basically good or even neutral people and driving them toward the devil. But such is not the case. The word of God is clear that men do, in almost all cases, exactly what they want to do. And the God who made us all is still over it all, sovereign, in control.

In truth, the biblical picture of God changing our will to match his will is not often exposed to us. The place it happens most clearly is when people who are naturally evil are drawn to the Lord for salvation. There we see the mighty and sovereign hand of God working to bring into sinful people new life and new desires that would not be theirs naturally.

So, in a super-simple summary, we can say that the sovereignty of God is fully compatible with the freedom of mankind in almost all circumstances. Joseph’s brothers did exactly what they freely wanted to do. They were fully to blame for their sin. And yet the sovereign, almighty, omniscient working of God brought about that Joseph would be in Egypt saving lives and preserving the promise of God. The same sort of thing can be said for hundreds of other events in the Bible where God was sovereign even as evil men made evil choices.

What about our salvation? God does not have to interfere with a human being’s freedom for any person to reject him. That is the natural disposition of the human heart. But for any human being to be saved, the Lord God must bring a dead heart to life (Eph. 2:1-4), God must forcefully and powerfully draw us to himself (John 6:44, 65), God must give us new birth so that we can see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). It is in turning us from evil to himself that God must take an action to interpose his sovereignty over our hearts to change our course. In that change, we will make an honest choice. That choice, however, is preceded by a sovereign move of God that we cannot detect on our own to move us to desire what we would not naturally desire, as no human being, on our own seeks God (Rom 3:10-12). Thus, the salvation of any person is all of grace, a gift given by God.

Is man free? Of course man is free. But man is not more free than God. Is God sovereign? He has to be. Otherwise, if the universe is spinning on its own without the control of the Lord, there is no guarantee of the promises of God. If the universe is more free than God, then God is not God.

We are not often privileged to see behind the veil and understand when something is being done by the sovereignty of God in comparison to the full freedom of mankind. But we know that God is God and we are not. We know that God works in all things. We know that God moves people where he wants them even as they act according to their own deepest desires. And we know from his word that, for a sinfully dead heart to desire him, that heart must be supernaturally changed by God.

Who put Joseph in Egypt? Joseph’s brothers acted according to their freedom. God moved and sovereignly put Joseph where he wanted him. Let us understand that God is God, working in ways we cannot see, but always working in perfect righteousness.

God Provided the Lamb

Some phrases in Scripture are so loaded with truth that we dare not miss them. One such phrase, one that provides us with tremendous hope, is found coming from Abraham in Genesis 22.

You probably know the basic story. When Isaac was a young man, perhaps a teenager, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac, the child of promise, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. This was a test, of course, as the Lord has never called for his people to participate in human sacrifice. And it was a significant teaching tool as well.

On the way up the mountain, when it was just father and son, Isaac noticed something was missing. They had all the necessary elements for an offering except for one thing, the victim.

Genesis 22:7-8 – 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

Isaac asks Abraham where the lamb for the offering is. Abraham responds with a profound truth, one far deeper than I would guess he understood himself. Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb.”

The story on the mountain ends with God stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son. And God clearly provided a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac. But the bigger truth was still to come.

The human race is a race of rebels against God. We are sinners, and our sin must be atoned for if we are to be in right relationship with our Lord. An offering must be made. A sacrificial substitute must die in our place, or we must forever die ourselves.

God provided himself a lamb. God knew that we lacked the resources and the ability to make things right between ourselves and him. We could not come up with an offering that would be enough. But God provided his own lamb. God provided the only sacrifice that could satisfy his perfect and holy wrath against sin. God provided His own Son to die in our place. God sent Jesus.

Taking Warnings for a Joke

When God was about to rain judgment down on Sodom and Gomorrah, his angels told Lot to get out of the city. In kindness, the angels also told Lot to tell any of his loved ones, his daughters’ fiancés as an example, to leave the city too. The people of the cities had been wicked, and the wrath of God was on the way.

But when Lot warned people who mattered to him, they did not take him seriously.

Genesis 19:14 – So Lot went out and said to his sons-in-law, who were to marry his daughters, “Up! Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city.” But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting.

Why did the young men not take Lot’s warnings to heart? We do not know what about their own lives was right or wrong. But we know that, when they heard the warning of the coming judgment of God, they assumed it to be a joke. They thought Lot was playing some sort of prank. They did not leave the city, though the warning was given. And they perished with the two evil cities.

In truth, it is hard for human beings to hear warnings, especially warnings of supernatural judgment, as real. Part of the sinful nature is to deny the existence of God. Though the Lord has made himself plain to all human beings, though all people have enough evidence of God’s presence as to be without excuse before him, we often fight against that with our hearts. People want to live in a world that is not influenced by God so long as things are going the way that they want. People who do not know God do not want to imagine the concept of God actually judging, at least not of him judging any but the worst of the worst. And even those who do know God can sometimes function as though we do not expect God to play a role in the world we live in. While we pray, read our Bibles, and attend church, many do not live on Monday through Saturday as if God is active.

We need to take a warning from the mistake of the young men in Genesis 19. They heard a warning of judgment from God. They assumed that there is just no way that could be serious. But it was. We live in a world that is far greater than the one we can see with our eyes. The God who made us is real, active, and glorious. God has promised us the return of Christ and real judgment. WE must not pretend such is far-fetched. We must not ignore God’s warnings. WE must become a people who understand that the God we cannot see with our eyes is more important than all the world that we can see. And one day, that God will make his presence visibly known as he judges this world and changes the universe forever.

Noah, Anthropology, and a Bigger View of Grace

What do you do when your view of humanity and the world around you is actually different than that of the Bible? Are you willing to let God, with his holiness and perfect knowledge, define humanity instead of you? You and I look at the world from our limited and corrupted perspective. God sees all of the world and all of humanity from the vantage point of absolute, perfect, and complete wisdom and knowledge.

Start with these questions. Is humanity basically good? Are people basically good? How does the human race deserve to be treated by our Creator?

Look at the writings and proclamations of all sorts of people, In them you will find a common praise of the human spirit and the general, innate goodness of mankind. We lock arms after tragedies and call ourselves strong. We put together t-shirts and hash tags that pronounce our hope in the good hearts of people all over the globe. And in doing so, we demonstrate that we have no clue of a biblical anthropology.

Reading through the Bible in a new year will most often start us in Genesis. As we read, we want to be careful not to let ourselves miss the important things that are said by God about us. A look at some of the verses around the account of the flood and Noah help us to see some true things about God’s view of humanity that are not popular preaching points.

Why did God flood the earth?

Genesis 6:5-7 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.

How does that match your understanding of humanity? How does it match your understanding of yourself? God said that every intention and thought of the hearts of mankind is only wicked all the time.

But wait, maybe that is just humanity before the flood. Here is what God says immediately after the flood.

Genesis 8:21 – And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

After the flood, when Noah and his family were rescued, God evaluated the world. No, God would never again flood the world like he did with Noah. But how does God still evaluate mankind? The Lord said, “for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

You might argue at this point that such an evaluation does not match your view. You might say that this does not fit your experience. You might say that you have run into good people in the world, that you like people, that you have seen the kindness of man to man. And I would agree. There have been countless expressions of kindness, graciousness, helpfulness, and general goodness of human being to human being all over the world all through history.

Does this then make the biblical assessment of humanity wrong? No. Why? First and foremost, the evaluation of the goodness or evil of the hearts of mankind is being evaluated by the holy God and not by other people. Second, though we do not see it here, part of what brings about the decency of one man or one woman toward another in our world is the common grace of God and the restraining power of the Holy Spirit. God acts to prevent us from acting out the natural evil in our hearts. And so, when any of us, before being transformed by God, does any good thing, we must understand that our behavior is not matching the true heart of humanity. Thus, any good behavior must be credited first and foremost, not to the person, but to the acting grace and presence of God.

What must this do to our worldview? If we are willing to let the word of God lay for us the framework of how we view the world around us including all of humanity, we will find that God’s grace is all over the place. Every good is from God. Every decency in humanity is the restraining power of God. And God has a better perspective to see this truth than we do. We cannot see into our own hearts. WE are corrupted by the fall. WE do not understand how desperate is our condition.

It also changes our understanding of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is not that God sent Jesus to offer heaven to people who are naturally pretty good, but who do need a little help to make it the rest of the way to heaven. No, the gospel is that God sent his Son to pluck from a wicked and rebellious people a bride, a church, a temple of God. Jesus came to plunge himself into the mess that is humanity and to bring out of the world people who, if left to themselves, would do nothing but hate God and hate good forever.

Yes, this is a dark anthropology. But it shines the truest and brightest light on the glory of God. God is holy. God, even today, is restraining humanity from being all we could be if we were left to our wickedness. God shows us that we have only evil intentions in our hearts. But God sent Jesus and rescues out of that mass of rebels a people for himself. Jesus transforms wicked hearts into hearts that find their greatest joy in the glory of God. And this is grace, absolute grace, perfect grace. This is the grace of a God who saves God-haters, not basically good folks. This is a grace that gives all the credit, 100% of the glory, to the Lord and none to the rescued sinner. This is the grace that we magnify when we have a truly biblical grasp of who we are when left to ourselves.