Where is the God of John Knox? Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the God-Honoring Reasons for Honoring the Reformers

With this year being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I have written much on the Reformers themselves, holding them up as examples, flawed though they may have been, of faithful service to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much of the response has been positive, although some have accused me of “hero worship” or “setting up Protestant popes” or “honoring men instead of God”, or similar nonsense. The reason I call such comments as nonsense is because anyone who has given these posts a fair reading should be able to see that my intentions have been quite the opposite. Far from exalting sinful human beings, I have sought to exalt the God who graciously and powerfully uses sinful human beings to accomplish mighty acts in the work of the gospel.

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Photo courtesy of Joshua Horn, discerning history.com

It is precisely because that God uses the frail, the feeble, and the fallen — or, as the apostle Paul would say, “earthen vessels” — to accomplish his holy and righteous purposes that the greatness of his power is manifested ever so clearly.

As we are just days away from the actual anniversary of the Reformation, I thought it opportune to post something from Martyn Lloyd-Jones who well articulates the God-honoring reasons for which we should honor the Reformers. In an address on the legacy of John Knox, Lloyd-Jones states:

What do we see then [when we look at the Reformation]? Well, of course the first thing that attracts our attention is the men, the men that God used. Look at them, Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, John Knox, Andrew Melville, John Welsh, and many others. Here are men worthy of the name! Heroic men, big men, men of granite!… Think what you like of me, I like to look at and read of a big man! In an age of pygmies such as this, it is a good thing to read about great men. We are all so much alike and of the same size, but here were giants in the land, able men, men of gigantic intellect, men on a big scale in the realm of mind and logic and reason. Then look at their zeal, look at their courage! I frankly am an admirer of a man who can make a queen tremble! These are the things that strike us at once about these men. But then I suppose that the most notable thing of all was the fact of the burning conviction that dwelt within them; this is what made them the men they were….

What was the secret of it all? It was not the men … great as they were. It was God! God in his sovereignty raising up his men. And God knows what he is doing. Look at the gifts he gave John Knox as a natural man; look at the mind he gave to Calvin and the training he gave him as a lawyer to prepare him for his great work; look at Martin Luther, that volcano of a man; God preparing his men in the different nations and countries. Of course, even before he produced them, he had been preparing the way for them. Let us never forget John Wyclif and John Hus; let us never forget the Waldensians and all the martyrs of these terrible Middle Ages! God was preparing the way; he sent his men at the right moment, and the mighty events followed….

To me the main message of the Protestant Reformation of [five] hundred years ago is to point us to the one and only hope. Things were bad in Scotland when God called John Knox and sent him out as a burning flame and the others with him. Our position is not hopeless, for God remains, and with God nothing is impossible! The conditions could not have been worse than they were immediately before the Reformation; yet in spite of that the change came. Why? Because God was there and God sent it. So the only question we need ask is the old question of Elisha face to face with his problem: ‘Where is the Lord God of Elijah?’ And I want to ask that question this evening: Where is the God of John Knox?… If we stop with John Knox it is not enough; the question is, Where is the God of John Knox, he who can give us the power, the authority, the might, the courage, and everything we need, where is he?…

We must go back to the confession, go back to the faith, go back to the Word, believe its truths, and in the light of it go with boldness, confidence, assurance, to the throne of grace; to obtain mercy and find grace to help in the time of need. We are living in an appalling time of need, sin and evil rampant; the whole world is quaking and shaking. The times are alarming—’time of need’. The one thing necessary is to find this God, and there seated at his right hand, the One who has been in this world and knows all about it, has seen its shame, its sin, its vileness, its rottenness face to face; friend of publicans and sinners, a man who knew the hatred and the animosity of the Pharisees, scribes and Sadducees, the doctors of the law, and Pontius Pilate. The whole world was against him, and yet he triumphed through it all; he is there, and he is our representative and high priest.

Believe in him, hold fast to the confession. Let us go in his name with boldness unto the throne of grace, and as certainly as we do so we shall obtain the mercy that we need for our sinfulness and unfaithfulness, and we shall be given the grace to help us in our time of need, in our day and generation. The God of John Knox is still there, and still the same, and thank God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Oh, that we might know the God of John Knox! [Martyn Lloyd Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 17-18; 31-34]

Well spoken indeed. We look to “heroes of the faith” such as John Knox, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others, not because they were perfect, but because it was through their imperfections that God showed forth the perfection of his power and glory and love in recovering the gospel of Jesus Christ. The proper question to ask regarding the Reformers is not “Where are such people today and why aren’t we imitating them?” but rather “Where is the God of such people today and why he is not using us to accomplish mighty works, fragile vessels though we may be?”

Obviously this is very much a rhetorical question. We know where the God of Elijah, and Knox and Luther and Calvin is. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The question is rather where do we stand in relation to him? Are we fully surrendered and faithfully obedient to his call to stand up for the gospel in our own generation?

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‘Let Her Learn to Swim!’: The Holy Audacity of John Knox

The Scottish Reformer John Knox has not always enjoyed the greatest reputation in the annals of history. He was, after all, the one who created quite a stir with his strongly polemical work against Mary Tudor entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. That certainly did not earn him much favor from the Queen, nor from her successor Elizabeth I, nor from many other friends and foes alike. Admittedly, it was perhaps not Knox’s wisest move at the time, for it ended up greatly offending Queen Elizabeth and thus hindered him from in helping to promote the Protestant cause in England.

nevertheless, hard times often call for hard individuals. Although often exaggerated by his critics, the faults of John Knox were not insignificant, as any fairly written biography (Jane Dawson’s comes to mind) will not hesitate to point out. Having said that, however,710BgyDUmDL D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones insightfully explains why it was precisely a man like Knox that was needed in such a pivotal period in Scottish history:

Was John Knox like one of the people? Was John Knox a matey, friendly, nice chap with whom you could have a discussion? Thank God he was not! Scotland would not be what she has been for four centuries if John Knox had been that kind of man. Can you imagine John Knox having tips and training as to how he should conduct and comport himself before the television camera, so as to be nice and polite and friendly and gentlemanly? Thank God prophets are made of stronger stuff! An Amos, a Jeremiah, a John the Baptist in the wilderness in his camel-hair shirt—a strange fellow, a lunatic, they said, but they went and listened to him because he was a curiousity, and as they listened they were convicted! Such a man was John Knox, with the fire of God in his bones and in his belly! He preached as they all preached, with fire and power, alarming sermons, convicting sermons, humbling sermons, converting sermons, and the face of Scotland was changed: the greatest epoch in [Scotland’s] long history had begun!

Lloyd-Jones makes an important point. John Knox was, by all accounts, much more like an Elijah or a John the Baptist who certainly did not mince words or use flowery, polite language to get their point across. The message that they had to deliver from God was a matter of life and death! Moreover, the opposition that Knox had to face, the harsh suffering and constant threats of death that he endured, the powerful rulers with which he had to contend, all of these things required an individual made of sterner stuff than most. It required an individual who, like Lloyd-Jones remarks, had “the fire of God in his bones and in his belly”! When you have to do with a man who is on fire, sooner or later you are bound to get burned.

As an example of this kind of “holy audacity” that one needed to do the work of a Reformer, Knox recounts the following story of what happened to him during his nineteenth-month imprisonment as a galley slave in the belly of a French ship. Knox had been taken captive after the castle of St. Andrews where he had served as chaplain was overrun by French troops. The life of a galley slave, of course, was one of excruciating labor and suffering, one over which the captors held an absolute power of life and death. Being a French ship, the slaves were forced to participate in the Catholic Masses said aboard or else face grave consequences. One day, one prisoner by the name of John Knox took his stand:

At certain times the Mass was said in the galleys, or else heard upon the shore, and those that were in the galleys were threatened with torments if they would not give reverence to the Mass. But they could never make the poorest of that company to give reverence to that idol. Yea, when upon the Saturday at night they sang 4532970_origtheir Salve Regina, the whole Scottishmen put on their caps, their hoods, or such things as they had to cover their heads; and when others were compelled to kiss a painted [board], which they called ‘Notre Dame,’ they were not pressed after once; for this was the chance:—

Soon after their arrival at Nantes, their great Salve was sung, and a glorious painted Lady was brought in to be kissed, and, amongst others, was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said: ‘Trouble me not. Such an idol is accursed; therefore I will not touch it.’ The [Skipper] and the [Lieutenant], with two officers, having the chief charge of such matters, said, ‘Thou shalt handle it’; and they violently thrust it to his face, and put it betwixt his hands. He, seeing the extremity, took the idol, and advisedly looking about him, cast it into the river, and said: ‘Let our Lady now save herself. She is light enough; let her learn to swim’! After that was no Scotsman urged with that idolatry.[2]

Holy audacity indeed! This was not simply Knox responding this way at a safe distance through written correspondence; this was Knox as a galley slave responding to his Catholic captors who could have killed him on the spot! In reality, it was likely through fiery trials such as this that God smelted Knox’s character into the iron-clad form necessary for enduring the agony required to bring the Reformation to Scotland. Knox may not have been the kind of person you would want to invite for a peaceful afternoon of tea and biscuits, but he was doubtless the kind of person you would need for galvanizing an entire nation in the Protestant cause.

I don’t write all of this to exalt John Knox. He was a fallible, flawed human being like the rest of us. But that is precisely the point: he was a fallible, flawed human being that God used in epoch-making ways! And if we truly believe that the God of Knox is the same God we serve today, then what might happen if we knew him, trusted in him, and burned for him as Knox did? As Martyn Lloyd-Jones concluded his address commemorating the Scottish Reformer:

The God of John Knox is still there, and still the same, and thank God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Oh, that we might know the God of John Knox![3]

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[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Carlisle, PA; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 30.

[2] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 94-95.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Carlisle, PA; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 34.

 

“I Preach Christ”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Simple yet Oft-Neglected Essence of the Gospel

Today as I was reading a sermon preached by Martyn Lloyd-Jones from Philippians 1, I came across a salutary reminder about the basic content that constitutes the essence of the gospel message. As Lloyd-Jones himself observes, it is sad that such a reminder is even necessary, yet the fact remains that, as in Paul’s day so also in ours, people have a tendency to forget (or willfully ignore?) this simple but vital truth:

the gospel consists of preaching Christ. Did you notice how Paul mentions that three times: ‘preach Christ’ in verse 15; ‘preach Christ’ in verse 16; and ‘Christ is preached’ in verse 18? He also talks about ‘spreading the word’, and about ‘the defence of the gospel’, but those are just two other words for describing the same thing — the 3-daily-readings-from-martyn-lloyd-jonesgospel, the word, preaching Christ. Surely it is rather strange that in the twentieth century it is still necessary to say these things, and yet the contemporary situation is such that it insists upon our giving this particular emphasis….

In other words, the message of the Church and of the gospel is definite; it is not a vague message of goodwill, nor a general exhortation to people to live a better life. It is not a mere appeal for morality, or soothing words to a nation which is experiencing economic difficulties. Nor is it a kind of general attempt to raise the morale of the people, and to get more production and things of that kind. All that may come in the future as a result of the gospel, but that is not the thing that confirms the truth; it is preaching Christ. Thus, the test of the message should be: is Christ in the centre? Is Christ essential? Does it all emanate from him? Does it all revolve around him? Would there be a message if Christ had never lived?

That is the test, and I think we must all agree that so much that passes for Christianity, judged by this test, is not Christianity at all; it would all be possible without Christ. There is a great deal of idealism in Greek philosophies, and in Islam. There is much good and moral uplift apart from Christ, but it is not the gospel, it is not the word. The thing that I am anxious about, said Paul, is Christ. I preach Christ. I am set for the defence of the gospel. [Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Life of Joy: A Commentary on Philippians 1 and 2 (London; Hodder & Stoughton, 1989), 64-66]

Unfortunately, I can second Lloyd-Jones’s observation that much of Christianity seems to preach a message which is virtually devoid of Christ. We preach about morality, we preach about social issues, we preach about practical problems of daily life, we even preach the Bible, but do we preach Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega, the center and content of it all? It is only Christ who makes our message distinctively Christian as opposed to all other religions and philosophies of the world. Stated simply, there is no gospel without Christ. There is no church without Christ. If Christ does not thoroughly saturate our message from beginning to end, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

As I remarked above, all of this should go without saying, but sadly it is the most obvious thing that is often the most neglected. This is a call for reformation. He who has an ear, let him hear.

A Mouth Full of Fire: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Nature of True Preaching

What is preaching? That is the question! I remember the first time someone asked me to explain the difference between teaching the Bible and preaching the Bible. I don’t exactly recall what I said, but I know that it was a fumble at best! Since that time, I have been reflecting now and again on what it is that distinguishes preaching from mere teaching. In my opinion, Martyn Lloyd-Jones hit the proverbial nail on the head when he stated in his famous Preaching and Preachers lectures:

What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course they are not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a 40232233852-Media-Gratiae-Lloyd-Jones-Logic-on-fire-DVDtheology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective.

Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.

What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence. As I have said already, during this last year I have been ill, and so have had the opportunity, and the privilege, of listening to others, instead of preaching myself.

As I have listened in physical weakness this is the thing I have looked for and longed for and desired. I can forgive a man for a bad sermon, I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something which is very great and very glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and the glory of God, the love of Christ my Saviour, and the magnificence of the Gospel. If he does that I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him.

Preaching is the most amazing, and the most thrilling activity that one can ever be engaged in, because of all that it holds out for all of us in the present, and because of the glorious endless possibilities in an eternal future.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), Kindle Edition, 110-111.

A Holy and Patient Violence: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Blessing of Unaswered Prayer

As I wrote in a recent post “I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me“, the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones has helped to radically change my view of prayer, a discipline with which I have struggled to maintain consistency for most of my life. Revelatory to me was Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation of what it means to ask in prayer: not asking casually, infrequently, sporadically, or even just once or twice, but seeking and knocking, wrestling in prayer like Jacob with God who exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I jacobrealized that my lack of patience and perseverance in prayer was that I had misunderstood what it means to “ask” of God. This simple yet profound insight has since revolutionized my prayer life.

Later in the same collection of sermons, Joy Unspeakable, I happened upon another revelatory moment, a single phrase that struck me with the same thunderous force as before. Whereas previously Lloyd-Jones taught me that true “asking” in prayer involves importunate “seeking” and “knocking” until the door is opened, here he explains the reason for this and reveals the hidden blessing that comes when God does not (or seems not) to answer prayer.  Once again, the great Doctor penetrates into the biblical text and unearths a treasure that promises to enrich an impoverished life of prayer. In order to feel the impact of what Lloyd-Jones says, however, it is necessary to understand the wider context of the sermon. First we will consider Christ’s words in Luke 11:5-13, and then we will listen to Lloyd-Jones’s exposition:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Now here is Lloyd-Jones:

Without an element of importunity and persistence, or urgency and almost a holy violence with God, we have little right to expect that God will hear our prayer and answer it. Indeed, as we have seen, in holding back the answer God is preparing us. He wants us to come to this place in which we realize we are indeed helpless and hopeless, and so become desperate and cry out to him…. I must of necessity add immediately that you must at the same time be patient. Now that sounds as if it is a contradiction; and yet it is not, because if we become impatient, then our spirit has gone wrong again. The fact that a man is urgent and importunate does not mean that he is impatient….

The combination of these two things works like this: your urgency is born of your consciousness of need and of the greatness of the blessing. But you are not impatient, because you have now come to see that you are entirely unworthy of this blessing, you are unfit for it. The moment you become impatient what you are really saying to God is that you deserve this, and that he should give it to you, and that he should not be keeping you waiting in this way. That is impatience and it is always wrong. That proves again, that you are not fit, and that you need to be prepared much further.

This is important because it is impatience that always leads people to give up. ‘It is no use,’ they say, ‘I have striven for many years.’ They really have a sense of grudge against God. They say to him, ‘I have done everything you have said but I have not had the blessing.’ The end, that is unspoken, is, ‘Why is God treating me like this?’ The answer is, because you are like that, because of your very impatience, because of your restlessness of spirit. So we must neither be impatient nor discouraged. The prayer at this point is,

Thy way, not mine, O Lord, [h]owever hard it be.

Or as another hymn puts it:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, [n]earer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross [t]hat raiseth me.

That is the prayer—one of utter submission, a desire to know God and his love, to be filled with his love, to be his servant, to live to his glory. You must say, ‘It is your way, not mine. I don’t know, I have lost confidence in myself and my understanding. I am leaving myself in your hands.’ Urgent, importunate, but not impatient and not discouraged….

It is he who gives this gift. He knows when to give it, when we are fit to receive it. All we can do is to long for it, yearn for it, cry out for it, keep on doing so and to be importunate. But above all we must leave ourselves unreservedly, and the great issue itself, entirely in his blessed and loving hands…. If you are in this position of seeking, do not despair, or be discouraged, it is he who has created the desire within you, and he is a loving God who does not mock you. If you have the desire, let him lead you on. Be patient. Be urgent and patient at the same time. Once he leads you along this line he will lead you to the blessing itself and all the glory that is attached to it….

The possibilities are there for any genuine child of God who longs to know the love of God in its fullness! Go on pleading. Go on asking.

O love divine, how sweet thou art! When shall I find my willing heart [a]ll taken up by Thee?

Go on offering that prayer, and in his own gracious good day he will grant you your heart’s desire, and you will begin to know that ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’.[1]

There is so many profound insights here that it would certainly take more than a blog post to unpack them all! But I really only want to highlight the single phrase that left me thunderstruck: God is treating me like this because I am like that! Reading this, my gut reaction is to retort, in good British fashion, “Dr. Martyn, that’s a fairly cheeky statement!” How dare Lloyd-Jones tell me that God is treating me like…, oh wait, he’s right, I am like that!

The more I think about it, the more I am forced to admit that I am the one who is being cheeky with God. “Lord, I have prayed and prayed and prayed, and you haven’t answered. Why are you treating me like this?” And then in the ensuing silence, I hear a still small voice that lovingly yet reprovingly responds: “I am treating you like this because you are like that. By the very fact that you ask this question, you show me that you are not ready for the blessing for which you are asking. You need to learn to be content with having ME, apart from whatever answers you may or may not receive. Were I to give you what you want right now, then I would only be reinforcing the self-centered, impatient attitude with you have come to me in prayer. And if I did that, then you certainly would not become the kind of person that you need to be in order to faithfully steward the gift for which you ask.”

Lloyd-Jones has, by way of Scripture, exposed an ugly corner of my prideful heart. It smarts, it hurts, but it is the truth. It is my very impatience with God in prayer that indicates I am not ready for the answer that I am seeking. It is my willingness to give up, to let go of God before he blesses me, that reveals how untrustworthy I am to handle the very thing for which I am praying. Before God can give me the blessing that I seek (assuming here that the blessing that I seek is according to his will), I must be the kind of person who can be entrusted with that blessing, who will not turn around and use it for selfish or self-aggrandizing purposes.

The crucible of unanswered prayer develops in us, as Lloyd-Jones observes, a holy violence that is paradoxically marked by patience, a desperation with which we lay hold of God and refuse to let go, no matter how long it will take or how much it will cost. It is on the anvil of unanswered prayer that God forges us under the pounding hammer of his holy love into people who are fit for the blessing that he desires to bestow upon us. It is through the fire of unanswered prayer that our sinful dross is purged and our faith, endurance, and character are refined into pure gold. But until we have passed through that fiery trial (weeks, months, years?) and come out on the other side recreated in the image of God, we should not necessarily expect God to answer our prayers as we would expect. He is God, we are not, and ours jesus-praysis to submit to his will, obeying his command to importunately persevere in prayer, regardless of what happens, knowing that within his “no” to us there is hidden a resounding “yes”.

When we think we have asked God for a fish or an egg, it is more likely that we have asked him for a serpent or a scorpion, and as our loving heavenly Father, he refuses to give it to us. What we need is for him to change us so that we are able to recognize this! Perhaps, then, if unanswered prayer is the way that God makes us ever more desperate and dependent on him, transforming us ever more from glory to glory, drawing us ever deeper into fellowship and communion with him, might it not be the greatest blessing of all?

So let us pray with a holy and patient violence, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, even if it means that we sweat drops of blood. It is in arriving at the place where we can wholeheartedly confess, “Not my will, but yours be done”, that God begins to shower down upon us his most abundant blessings.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.224-226, 231.

“I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me!”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Praying with Importunity

In my personal devotions I have been reflecting much lately on prayer. Prayer is something that, if I am honest, has not been a consistent practice in my life. Not that I have neglected prayer; rather, as the great prayer warriors of history might say, I have not “prevailed” or “importuned” in prayer. Much of this stems from the fact that I have too much confidence in what I can accomplish in the flesh and far too little faith in what God will do in response to my prayers. At the same time, I confess that I have exercised very little patience even when I given myself to intense praying, disappointed by the apparent ‘lack of results’.

For people like myself (and I’m sure there are many!), passages like Luke 11:9-10 can be perplexing:

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

After praying for a while and not seeing tangible answers, I am left thinking: “I have asked but have not received! I have sought but not found! I have knocked but nothing was opened! What is wrong?”. Honestly, it is just sometimes easier to neglect prayer than to face this troubling question.

However, I have recently found much help from a sermon in which the great Welsh preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this very passage. Lloyd-Jones’s insights struck me like a bolt of lightning and have since invigorated by fervency and constancy in prayer. He says:

Now many no doubt have had this perplexity with regard to the whole question of answers to prayer. There are statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that you only have to ask and you will receive. So people say, ‘But I have asked, and I have not received’, and they do not understand this. I am suggesting that the answer is that LLoyd-Jonesthere is a greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think, and our Lord suggests that, in varying the expression, ‘Ask; seek; knock.’

True asking, I am suggesting, is the knocking. In other words, asking does not mean a casual request. You suddenly feel like it and you make your request, then you forget all about it by the next morning. That is neither true asking, nor true seeking. In true asking there is a kind of urgency, there is a refusal to be content with anything less than the answer. That is where this knocking comes in. You do not merely shout from a distance, you go on and you approach nearer and nearer, and at last you are, as it were, hammering at the door.

This is clearly the teaching of Scripture itself. Our danger, all of us, is to reduce the great blessings of the Christian faith to some almost automatic process. I have often compared it to the slot machines into which you put your coin and draw out your chocolate or drink—there it is. That is simply not true in the Christian life. It is not true at all. There is this element of real seeking, ‘hunger and thirst’. ‘Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ That does not mean that in a service you wish you were living a better life and you would like to be better, or when you are at a funeral you feel the same thing, and then forget all about it and go back and live the same old life. No, hungering and thirsting after righteousness! ‘Asking; seeking; knocking!’

And as that is the teaching of the Scripture, you will find this abundantly confirmed in the testimonies and the experiences of people who testify to having received this great blessing. Many of them have had to strive sometimes for years before they have had this wonderful experience, and they say, furthermore, that looking back they can see that there difficulty was that their seeking was fitful—they would do it in spasms and then forget all about it. Then they would come back to it, and then forget about it again. But then they reached a point at which they became desperate, and like Jacob of old they, as it were, said, ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’ Now that is the thing, typified once and for ever in that great story of Jacob. And it has been repeated so often in the lives and the testimonies of people.

The trouble with us is we are all half-hearted about this. Our Lord is speaking here about importunity…. So that if we just almost casually, as it were, ask God for this blessing and nothing happens, we must not blame God. We have not fulfilled the conditions, and have not really asked. Do not forget—’Ask; seek; knock.’ Importunity! ‘I will not let thee go!’… God is our Father and he does not give us the blessing we want immediately, always. Thank God he doesn’t. We would never grow up if he did, and this is part of our whole process of sanctification. By withholding the blessing God searches us, examines us, makes us examine ourselves, and realize the terms and the conditions, and he deepens the whole of our spiritual life.

This again is something that the generation to which we belong is tending to forget. We are a people who always desire some short cuts, some easy method, some kind of ‘package’ blessing. And that is one of the great differences between the Christian literature of this present century and of the Christian church up to about the middle of the last century. People would seek a blessing for years before they received it. But there was a purpose in it all; God was dealing with them and leading them along a given path. You will never know the heights of the Christian life without effort. You have to strive for these things—there is a seeking, knocking, and an importunity. And it is because so many have missed that element that they get into confusion at this point.[1]

Although I might quibble a bit with some of the things that Lloyd-Jones says here (in good Torrancean fashion I would want to frame the ‘conditionality’ of prayer more in terms of Christ’s vicarious intercession for us), his fundamental point is incisive and illuminating: “there is greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think”. The problem lies not with God, nor with the promise that he has made us in Christ about responding to to us when we ask. The problem is that we have not truly asked! Asking in prayer is not making “causal” or “fitful” requests every now and again; it is importunate seeking and knocking! It is Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received God’s blessing! It is that relentless zeal to prevail, as Jacob did, even if it means wrestling all through night!

This is, of course, not meant to give hope to our selfish desires. In the context of Luke 11, Jesus is specifically speaking about the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Yet Lloyd-Jones reminds us that truly asking for the Spirit in prayer, and for all of the blessings promised us by God in the name of Christ, does not consist a sporadic or infrequent affair. It is the determined resolution of Jacob wrestling with God, of the woman demanding justice from the unjust judge, of the man requesting bread from his friend in the middle of the night, until God grants what he has promised. It may takes days, weeks, months, or even years, but this is what it means to truly ask of God. We ask by seeking and knocking until the door is opened to us, and by not giving up until it does so.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.166-169.

 

Athanasius, the Cross, and How I Am Finding Hope in the Shadow of Death

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This week, my family and I are preparing to return to our church-planting ministry in Italy after a three month furlough in the US. This is both an answer to prayer and a request for more prayer. What I means is this: what was originally supposed to be a three month period dedicated to visiting and reporting to our supporting churches turned out to be essentially a three month medical leave as I faced some serious and debilitating health issues. I am thankful that God has graciously allowed me to see some improvement, enough at least that I feel able to return to Italy. At the same time, concerns remain, and I would be lying if I said that I have no anxiety about leaving the medical resources and support network that I enjoy here in the US.

Of particular concern is the fact that this summer I was diagnosed with three abdominal aneurysms. Back in June I had gone to the emergency room on account of abdominal pain that was nearly making me delirious. While not the cause of the pain, the CT scan that I underwent in the ER revealed three aneurysms in my abdominal aorta and iliac arteries. Needless to say, my wife and I were a bit in shock. When we met with a vascular surgeon in July, we were told that the best course of action at this point is simply to monitor the aneurysms on a regular basis to chart their growth. From what I understand, given the size of the aneurysms, the risks of performing a repair operation outweight the benefits. The vascular surgeon assured me that I am in no imminent danger.

Although I was, and am, reassured to some extent by his expert opinion, I am unable to eliminate all sense of fear and doubt. Sure, the odds of a rupture occurring are low. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that I have what amounts to a time bomb in my body that at any moment could potentially explode, small as the risks may be. Moreover, this is only complicated by the fact that this week I am leaving a place where I have immediate access to superior health care and going to another place where…well let’s just say, I’d be better served by staying where I am.

The upshot of all this is that I have thought quite a bit about death in these last three months, and especially this week as I prepare to enter a situation in which I may not have access in sufficient time to life-saving medical intervention should any of my aneurysms rupture. The vascular surgeon was quite clear: the majority of people who manifest symptoms of an aneurysm rupture do not make it to a hospital in time. How much more then do I risk in going to a country where the last time I went to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain (which can be one of the signs of a ruptured aneurysm!), I was not even able to be seen by a doctor and simply had to go home after waiting many fruitless hours. I do not want to depict the situation in overly dramatic terms, but I also do not want to paper over reality with an illusion. Although I can’t say that I’m walking in the valley of death’s darkness, I can say at least that I am walking in the valley of death’s shadow.

While it is not consuming me, this concern is certainly on my mind as we pack our bags to leave. Something that has helped me to deal with it, as I have been re-reading Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation, is his description of, to borrow the title of another famous work, ‘the death of death in the death of Christ”. Fear of death is perhaps the most primal and instinctual of all human fears. It is that which to some degree underlies all of our other fears and anxieties. And it is precisely this fear that Christ has defeated and destroyed in his death and resurrection. Athanasius writes:

For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross is become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Saviour took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as nought, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually [begin to] live, and become crucifixion-abstractincorruptible through the Resurrection. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.

And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Saviour has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting.”[1]

I find great comfort in these words inasmuch as they faithfully reflect the biblical witness to the death-destroying work of Christ. As I prepare to leave this week, I am attempting to follow the wise advise of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who observed that one of the biggest sources of our fear and anxiety is the fact that we listen to ourselves rather than preaching to ourselves. These words from Athanasius preach to me, and I am pondering them, and through them the Scriptures themselves, with the hope that the truth that they communicate will sink deep into the marrow of my bones. Even though I don’t feel like it, I am endeavouring to rejoice with Paul that death has lost its victory and the grave no longer has any sting. I am trying to remind myself, over and over again, that I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. In Christ I have already passed through death and into resurrection; so why should I fear death?

It is this hope that is enabling me, despite my fear and trepidation, to take up my cross and follow wherever my Savior leads, even if he takes me into the valley of the shadow. I do not say this to exalt myself. Far from it. I often feel like the weakest person I know. But I share this so that it might encourage you and also so that I will come to believe it a little more myself.

*By way of a postscript, my travels and subsequent readjustment to life in Italy may result in a slowdown, if not a bit of silence, here on the blog. Never fear, however, for I fully intend to continue to post when I return to Italy, and I plan on doing so by returning to my series on Reforming Calvinism. Stay tuned!

Prayers are also greatly appreciated for my family and I during this transition – for our travels, our readjustment, and for my continued health concerns.

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[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 50–51.