“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. 21 He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding; 22 he reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with him.
Merry Day-after-Christmas. I trust your time celebrating the birth of our Savior was sweet and, as the exhortation prodded, continues to be sweet!
I have many examples in my life of recognizing a desperate need for help. Once I fell in Lake Erie while ice fishing. I knew immediately and urgently that if no one came to my rescue I would be in significant trouble. Another time Gerri and I ran out of gas on a freeway entrance ramp in the middle of nowhere. This was before cell phones and we didn’t have AAA. We needed help and we knew it. Right after giving birth to one of our kids Gerri tried to get out of bed and immediately crumpled to the ground. If you know me and my lack of medical prowess, you know that I knew I needed help. I’m sure that many of you have similar stories of finding yourselves in challenging or even life-threatening spots and knowing without a doubt that you needed help.
As you’ve probably noticed in those instances, though, it’s only once you’ve recognized the seriousness of your predicament that the longing for help comes. One time I had a collapsed lung and didn’t know it. Initially it only collapsed partially. It was made breathing more challenging but it didn’t seem like that big of a deal. So, we went on vacation. Throughout the vacation breathing gradually got harder and harder until I was waking up at night gasping for air. Believe it or not, because it came on gradually, it still didn’t seem like a big deal. After driving back from vacation on Sunday, I made an appointment with my Dr. on Monday. It wasn’t until he (a normally steady guy) came in with bug eyes that the gravity of the situation started to hit.
Once we’ve realized our need for help (regardless of whether it came on gradually or immediately), once we find it (help) there is great joy.
As we quickly approach the New Year, I want to remind you of some special helping grace that God has put in the New Year in order to help us grow to be more like Jesus. The key assumption of this sermon, though, is that you all have come to recognize your need for this help; that you truly desire to become more like Jesus; that Christlikeness is the great cry of your heart; that you have in you a deep longing to put to death the sin that remains in you and to put on the righteousness of Jesus—in recognition of the fact that without these things you will not see God (Hebrews 12:14). If you do (and you must if you are a Christian), this sermon is good, biblical news for you. It is a declaration of the fact that God has guaranteed the fulfillment of this desire, heart cry, and soul longing. Specifically, it is a proclamation of the good news of one of the many helps God has given His people to make us more like Jesus.
To explain what I mean, I need you all to follow me through a few biblical principles that lead me to the conclusion that God has put special grace in the New Year to help us grow in Christ: 1) Christians, by the very nature of being Christian, are being made increasingly into Christ’s likeness; 2) Christians are being made increasingly into Christ’s likeness through a combination of our own effort and God’s sovereign grace; 3) God’s sovereign Grace comes in many different forms; and 4) One form is through the rhythm of creation. We’ll move quickly through the first three points and then spend the majority of our time on the fourth.
With that, let’s pray that God would be pleased to help us understand who we are, who we are becoming, and how He’s determined to make it so.
Christians are being made increasingly into Christ’s likeness
Being a Christian means, in part, that God is making you increasingly into the likeness of Jesus. The biblical term for this is “sanctification”.
Some of God’s sanctifying work has already been done in you. That is, being a Christian, by its very nature, means that we are, for instance, already children of God (1 John 3:1). It means that we are now righteous in God’s sight (Romans 4:6). It means that currently the Holy Spirit lives in us (1 Corinthians 3:16). These things cannot not be so for Christians. Being a Christian means that God has already worked these things in us.
But some of God’s sanctifying work has yet to be done in you. Though we are already God’s children, we have not yet received our full inheritance (Ephesians 1:14). Though we are already fully positionally righteous in God’s sight, we are not yet fully practically righteous (Colossians 3:5). And though the Holy Spirit lives in us, we can still quench His work (1 Thessalonians 5:19). These things are not yet completed in us. Being a Christian, though, means that they are certainly being done in us and will certainly be completed in us at Jesus’ return.
The question that I hope is on the front of all your minds right now is, how does the “not yet” portion of our transformation into Christ’s likeness happen? Or, how do we grow to be more like Jesus? This leads us into the next point.
We are sanctified through a combination of our effort and God’s sovereign Grace
The “not yet” becomes the “already” in us (we grow to be more like Jesus) through a combination of our effort and God’s grace. In other words, God has determined to sanctify us (out of the “not yet” and into the “already”) in two primary ways. First, he has determined to do so by sovereignty (monergistically) working Christlikeness in us. There are times in which God’s sovereign Grace simply changes us through no effort of our own. He speaks and sin dies in us. He wills and a new, godly affection springs up inside of us. In these cases God’s grace comes to us apart from any effort of our own.
Though this has happened in me countless times, the most vivid example in my memory remains the immediate sanctifying work God did in me at my conversion. Many, many of my sins died in me instantly and without any effort on my part when I first came to trust in Jesus. I had spent nearly twenty years cultivating a foul mouth, financial selfishness, and a taste for bad, bad music and God took each of these things away from me immediately.
As I said, there’s another way in which God has determined to make Christians more like Jesus as well. He does so apart from any effort on our part and (synergistically) through our fighting for it. That is, God sanctifies us, at times, when we work at it. In this second way, God graciously produces in us the desire for Christlikeness, the strength to work for it, and fruitfulness from our work for Christlikeness.
I’ve seen this in vivid ways in many of you as you’ve made war on substance abuse, pornography addiction, depression, marital troubles, etc. God poured out his grace on you in granting you the desire to fight these things and then poured out even more grace as he delivered you from them through your war.
All of this is the point of passages like Philippians 2:12-13 which says, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works Christlikeness in us and God works work for Christlikeness in us because both bring Him joy.
God’s Word promises that all Christians are being made increasingly like Jesus. That is certain. It is built into what it means to be a Christian. God does this both apart from our effort and through our effort.
This second point, though, raises another question: how does God bring grace to us so that we might do the work He requires of us? And again, this leads to the next point.
God’s Effort-producing, Sovereign Grace comes in all kinds of forms
God’s effort-producing, sovereign grace comes in all kinds of forms. That is, God has determined to motivate and empower Christians to fight for Christlikeness through many different means of grace.
God has chosen to do so through the prayers of other Christians (James 5:15). He has chosen to do so through the encouragement of other Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:11). He has chosen to do so through our meditation and study of His Word (Psalm 119:15-17). He has chosen to do so through the Sacraments (Romans 6:4; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). And there are countless other means of grace whereby God produces in Christians the desire to work for and achieve increasing Christlikeness.
Personally, I’ve probably experienced God’s sanctifying, sovereign grace most significantly through the means of being challenged by the godly example of other Christians. When I see you all (and others through books) obey Christ in faith, God often uses that to spur me on in my fight for Christlikeness.
Indeed, God’s effort-producing, sovereign grace comes in all kinds of forms. Like I said in the beginning, though, all of this was intended to set the biblical stage for one particular means of God’s grace that is unique to this season. And this, then, leads to my final point.
One means of God’s sanctifying Grace is the rhythm of creation
With New Year’s Day just a few days away, I want to highlight for you the sanctifying grace of God that comes to us through the rhythm of creation. Explaining what I mean and where I find it in the bible takes a little more work. I invite you to continue following me to this place of unusual grace.
New beginnings provide new hope, new excitement, and new perspective.
New beginnings provide the chance to make changes, the chance to improve, and the chance to reach goals. New beginnings provide opportunities and motivation to alter our thinking and action—to change our lives.
I need you all to feel this.
A new semester of school brings with it the promise of greater concentration, more dedication, and better grades. A new diet brings with it special hope of success and perseverance. A new forgiveness from your spouse brings with it an excitement for a better marriage. A new stretch of sobriety brings with it new commitment and a greater perspective.
There is something in our nature that responds opportunistically to a clean slate, that resonates with freshness, and that responds to the opportunities and motivation that new beginnings provide.
This responsiveness to new beginnings is not a random experience.
This is just a coincidental psychological phenomenon. Rather, it is how God created us. God designed us to respond to new beginnings in this way. We see this especially in the fact that God regularly provides, within the rhythm of creation, new beginnings, new opportunities for us a fresh start.
We see this in the fact that our God chose to make the earth spin on an axis such that every 24 hours there is a new dawn. Days are a part of God’s creation. They are not the invention of man. We have a new beginning of sorts at the start of each day.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Genesis 1:1-5).
We see this in the fact that God chose to make a new week, marked by a day of rest (a Sabbath), at the end of every seven days. Weeks are a part of God’s created order. They are not the invention of man. We have a new beginning of sorts at the start of each week.
“… And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:1-3).
We see this in the fact that God chose to make a new season at the end of every three months (give or take). Each of the seasons (winter, spring, summer, and fall) are mentioned in Scripture as elements of God’s creation. They are not the invention of man. We have a new beginning of sorts at the start of each season.
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:14-15).
And we see this in the fact that our God chose to make the earth revolve around the sun such that at the end of every 356 and ¼ days we have a new year. Years are a part of God’s creation. They are not an invention of man (Genesis 1:14). We have a new beginning of sorts at the start of each year.
What’s more, experience tells us that typically the more infrequently that the new beginnings occur, the more potentially powerful they are to produce change. A new day doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a new month and a new month doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a new season and a new season doesn’t tend to be as powerful as a new year.
Again, because of His love for us, God has made us to experience his grace in special ways at new beginnings. What’s more, He’s built many new beginnings into the rhythm of creation.
We should embrace the new beginnings that God provides as a means of making us more like Jesus.
When we are presented, by God, with these new beginnings we will either use them well and tap into the God-given power of their newness, or we will let them pass us by.
Thus, as 2015 comes to an end, we are given a remarkably powerful dose of effort-producing, sovereign grace intended by God to help us in our fight to become increasingly Christ-like. We should embrace the grace of this new beginning that God provides as the gift and the tool that He intends it to be. This, I believe is honoring to Him and good for us. It is, as I said earlier, one of God’s special means of helping us fight to become what we will certainly be.
As the New Year begins (test yourself in this to see if it is true) we tend to experience a new determination to be in the Word consistently. As the New Year begins we tend to experience new determination to take better care of the bodies that God has given us. As the New Year begins we tend to experience new resolve to fight against the sins that so easily entangle us. As the New Year begins we tend to experience a new resolve to think and live as we ought
Again, this new sense of determination and resolve, produced by the grace of God through the rhythm of creation, is a gift for our sanctification and, therefore, we ought to embrace it.
One of the best ways that I know how to embrace this New Year as a gift and a tool from God is in the form of resolutions.
New Year’s resolutions can be a powerful tool for our sanctification when they are the fruit of our recognition of our need for sanctification help and our responsiveness to God-given new-beginning-grace.
To be clear, the kind of resolution that I speaking of—the kind that is able to truly take advantage of the God’s gracious help embedded in the rhythm of creation is: A firm determination to follow Jesus more closely, in a particular area, informed by God’s Word, and for the glory of God.
A firm determination. I am not speaking of a general want. I am not speaking of a lukewarm preference. I am speaking here about great resolve. A resolution involves an awareness that the alternative is disobedience to God and destructive to our souls.
To follow Jesus. It is important here to distinguish between resolutions intended for worldly improvement and resolutions of becoming more like Jesus. Godly resolutions have the glory of God and the sanctification souls (ours and others) in mind. Worldly resolutions do not. Generally, they end with us and our own selfish desires.
In a particular area. In making resolutions, narrowing our focus to specific areas of obedience can be very helpful. It enables us to more easily recognize the fruit of God’s grace. It enables us to more easily pray and get help. And it enables us to more easily repent should we fall short. The best resolutions, in my experience are specific, measurable, and time-bound.
Informed by God’s Word. This is key. Our resolutions must be for Christlikeness. And we know what Christlikeness is only through God’s revealed Word.
For the glory of God – Godly resolutions are firm, have Christlikeness in view, are particular, are informed by God’s Word and, ultimately are for the glory of God. Our ultimate goal in making resolutions like this is demonstrating to ourselves and others the beauty and awesomeness and wonder of God.
Christians are certainly being made increasingly like Jesus. God does this through His sovereign grace and our faithful effort. God’s grace empowers our effort in many ways. One particular way in which God empowers our effort to become more like Jesus is through the new beginnings He’s built into the rhythm of creation. One of the ways we can tap into this effort-producing, sovereign grace of the new beginning of the New Year is through making godly resolutions.
With that, I want to challenge you to consider today what resolutions you might make in order to become more like Jesus in the New Year-grace of God for the glory of God.
An example of this type of resolution might be to read the entire bible in 2016 in an attempt to become more like Jesus as informed by 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Another example of a godly resolution might be to share the gospel with at least ten non-Christians this year in an attempt to become more like Jesus as informed by Matthew 28:18-20. Another might be to pray every Saturday night for your elders in conformity to Hebrews 13:17. Parents might resolve to meet weekly with each of their children to disciple them in light of Ephesians 6:4. Kids might resolve to find a friend to pray every day for you to honor your parents according to Ephesians 6:1. You might commit to adopting an orphan or regularly visiting a widow or inviting a lonely person into your circle of friends according to Deuteronomy 10:18. Consider resolving to make it to worship every week you’re in town or inviting a new family from Grace over to your house each month on account of Hebrews 10:25.
Each of these resolutions are specific examples of ways we might work to become more like Jesus in the grace of God as informed by the Word of God. Your desire for each of these things might never be higher than it is right now with the grace of God bringing a new oomph and new hope in the New Year.
Again, the point of this entire sermon is to describe one of the ways God has determined to help us all as we fight to become more like Jesus. Fight, then, Grace Church. Fight to kill the sin that still lives in you and is waging war against your joy in God. Fight with all you have. But fight not merely with all you have. Fight also with all that God has given to you. In particular, fight with the grace that God has placed for this purpose in the rhythm of His creation as the New Year dawns.
Grace, the gospel declares that you must fight, not to become a Christian (that is by grace alone through faith alone), but because you are a Christian. The gospel also declares, though, that the outcome of your faithful fight is certain victory.
In closing, listen to the words of Nia Wingfeather (from Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga) as she explains this mysterious grace of God in his creation to her children (Leeli, Tink, and Janner). Her children have just asked their mother if the blessings they are experiencing are the result of magic.
Nia smiled. “What’s magic, anyway? If you asked a kitten, ‘How does a bumblebee fly?’ the answer would probably be ‘Magic.’ Aerwiar is full of wonders, and some call it magic. This is a gift from the Maker—it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images. You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will. You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit. This is like the water from the First Well. The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when He knit the world. If it seems as though we have uncovered some secret, it is only because the wars of the ages concealed what was once as common as grass.”
It is only when we have grown too old that we fail to see that the Maker’s world is swollen with magic—it hides in plain sight in music and water and even bumblebees.”
And even in the New Year.