Why a sermon series on the doctrine of assurance?

Luther as Professor, 1529 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553)

1527, Martin Luther wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.” 

If you know your Reformation history, you know that 1527 is 10 years after Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Door. This is about a decade after Luther’s glorious discovery of justification by faith alone through the imputed righteousness of Christ.

In other words, Luther’s despair came after he was an established Christian. In that dark season, Luther’s battle was for assurance. Questions about his standing with God haunted his weary conscience. Am I an imposter? Am I really reconciled to God? Is my faith enough?

The questions he wrestled with (or the questions that wrestled him) are questions everyone asks at some point. They are eternal questions with eternal consequences. They are questions one must not answer wrongly. When a person thinks they’re right with God when they’re not it’s an eternal disaster. When a person thinks they’re not right with God, when they are, they miss out on God’s blessed gospel gift of assurance.

The doctrine of assurance is critical for the church. Here are three reasons why we need to spend time thinking about this:

First, false assurance runs rampant.

This is in part because of the reality that we in American swim in an ocean of cultural Christianity. I’ve spoken to many people who associate Christianity will good character, high moral values, and conservative politics. 

These are people who are convinced they are Christians, convinced they will be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment, and that because of something they’ve done, they will be welcomed into heaven when they die.

Ligonier Ministries does a “State of Theology” survey every two years, surveying masses of professing Christians to see what they believe about crucial doctrines. It’s a good way to take the pulse of the modern evangelical church. I looked through the survey mainly looking to see what it revealed about how much these people understand the gospel. Here’s what I found:

As related to God, 51% of evangelicals believe “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judiasm, and Islam.” Right off the bat we see more than half do not believe in a holy God who determines who can come to him and how. The exclusivity of Christ is discarded and the Holy God we encounter in Scripture is replaced with something more palatable for modern sensibilities .

As related to Christ, 78% of evangelicals think, “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.” Almost 80% of professing Christians have embraced some form of the ancient Arian heresy, and have more in common with modern Jehovah’s Witnesses than actual orthodox Christianity. They don’t think Jesus is divine and therefore adopt a human Christ who cannot save.

52% of evangelicals believe that people are naturally good, even though they may sin a little, representing a radical departure of the Bible’s teaching about man’s sinful condition. 

So we see the majority of professing believers have a God that’s not holy, a Christ that’s not divine, and a humanity that’s not sinful. It’s no wonder so many people are falsely assured of salvation. Salvation is meaningless without a right understanding of God, of sin, and of Christ. 

In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus speaks of people who are being cast out from his presence into judgement who claimed to know him as Lord, to speak on his behalf, to cast out demons in his name, and to do many mighty works for him. Their awakening in hell will be the most surprising moment of their lives. 

I write this in deep sadness. It grieves me to think of the multitudes who are happily embracing a false gospel that cannot save them. But it strengthens my resolve to do all I can to clarify the gospel in my church. 

Second, doubt is an issue for true believers.

It’s crucial to say this out loud: real believers sometimes have doubt. We find doubt in the Psalms and doubt in the gospels, even among people who trust God. It is not God’s desire to keep his children doubting his love for them, but because of our weakness and sin, we are prone to fall into doubt. 

Many of us are like the father of the demon-possessed child in Mark 9, if we’re honest. When Jesus said, “All things are possible for one who believes,” the man replied, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

This is why studying assurance is so practical. Who among us hasn’t said or felt the inner tension of that statement: “I believe; help my unbelief!” As not-yet-glorified Christians, we find ourselves to be wavering between belief and unbelief, faith and doubt, assurance and uncertainty. And much of our disobedience and despair comes from the lack of assurance of God’s love for us. 

The doctrine of assurance is an intersection between abstract theological ideas and street-level, everyday application. It’s intensely practical, because there’s nothing more practical than knowing for sure your status before God. If you have certainty there, it changes everything. You cannot know the height and depth and breadth and width of God’s love for you without it affecting your prayer life, your obedience, your attitude in suffering, your desire for his Word, your zeal in evangelism, your eagerness to serve — and the list goes on. Behind so many of our problems is the poisonous belief that God doesn’t really love us that much.

The presence of doubt and despair is traceable back to a certain view of God, salvation, and Christian living. So speaking of assurance helps us deal with all these realities.

Third, God desires that you know for sure.

Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, Pope Clement VIII’s personal theologian, said during the outbreak of the Reformation: “The greatest of all Protestant heresies is assurance.” 

But listen to the Scriptures: 1 John 5:13I write these things to you who believe in the same of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.”

Hebrews 10:22Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” 

Or think of Paul. Paul knew for sure: 2 Timothy 1:12But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed.”

This is God’s heart for his children. He wants them to be utterly certain of his care. Jesus went to great lengths to make this clear in John 10:

  • Verse 10-11: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 
  • Verse 14-15I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” 
  • Verse 27-28My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”

This is God’s desire for them. That they might know his love and feel secure. We are not to be motivated by the uncertainty of fear, but by the security of love. We are not in a family where the father motivates his children by threatening to abandon them if they fail, but by saying he’ll love and care for them no matter what.

Have you ever been rappelling? You get strapped up, the harness fitting uncomfortably snug all over your body, and there’s that moment when you have to learn backwards off the edge of some sheer cliff. 

That’s the scariest part of rappelling — when you’re not sure if the rope will hold all of your weight. If you’re not confident it will hold you, you won’t lean back. I’ve seen people watch others rappel, get strapped in themselves, go up to the ledge, and absolutely refuse to lean back. They couldn’t trust the rope with all their weight. And so they didn’t move.

If you don’t trust your Savior, fully and completely, there are going to be limits to your obedience. Do you trust Jesus with the full weight of your eternity? Do you trust him with your life? If you do not, there will be certain risks you will not take. You will never lay down your life until you trust that Jesus will raise it up again on the last Day.

God wants you to be sure and his love for you and your perfect security, and then lay your life down in risk-taking, self-sacrificing obedience.

Christ, Our Hope

Luther discovered justification by faith in 1517, but 1527 was one of the darkest years of his life.  It was also the year Martin Luther composed the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” It was his anthem to ward off the devil and remember the greatness of his salvation. 

Think of the words in the 2nd verse: 

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing, 

were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing: 

Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he; 

Lord Sabaoth his name, from Age to Age the Same, 

And he must win the battle.

Luther saw that we are weak sinners, who cannot strive to save themselves, but that God has appointed a man — who is also God — to be the Savior of everyone who trusts in him. He is our Mighty Fortress. Here is a great statement to start a series on assurance: at the bottom of it all, the grounds of assurance is Jesus Christ. 

 

Back to blogging

Since coming to Grace Brethren Church, my blogging output has shrunk. There are a few reasons, one being there is more ministry to be done here than anywhere else I’ve been. Another is that most of my writing these days is for seminary, which is not blog-worthy. A third is that I have a two-year-old. A fourth is that I also have a 10-month old. A fifth is the wife. Blogging is fun, but it falls behind these other joys.

So it’s risky to say I’m coming back to the blogosphere in 2013. But I am.

Lord willing.

 

Thank you, C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis always inspires me, no matter what I read of his. This morning I read sections out of his biography, specifically the chapter called “Checkmate” that details his conversion. After reading it, I felt like ditching my iPhone, deleting my Facebook account, and reading a classic. It almost doesn’t matter what he’s writing about, he gets me.

The reason is that in Lewis I find a man so alive to the world, so aware of his existence in all its glories and horrors that in comparison I feel half-asleep, numbed to most of reality, going through life forgetting that I live in a world where daisies and narwhals and redwoods exist. Life is a fantastic and horrifying thing.

We have largely forgotten the awe of existence, and the weightiness of life. No doubt the Niagara Falls of consumer information has exposed our inability to to discern the valuable from the worthless. We are drowning in a sea of memes, statuses, clips, bits, and likes.

He reminds me that the riptide that drowns us in the ocean of triviality begins as a slow undercurrent; that if we’re not careful our the dominating feature of our existence will be shallowness. The fight to wake up and to see and to feel; to really, really live, is, in fact,  a fight to the death.

Thank you, C.S. Lewis.

Has something been tinkering with your brain?

Nicholas Carr wrote an article titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” containing this section. Tony Reinke quoted it at length in his book Lit! to describe why we’re having a harder time reading these days. As I read it, I kept saying, “Me too! Me too!”

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going–as far as I can tell– but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle…And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

When Emma met John Macarthur

A few weeks ago I was at The Master’s Seminary for an appointment to make sure I get my classes for next fall. I had Emma with me (and she was looking mighty cute, I should add) for some daddy-daughter time, and we were waiting up in the reception area. Suddenly an entourage of men busted open the doors and walked in.

I recognized a few of the men– they were pastors and elders from Grace Community Church. In the midst of the hustle, one man stopped and began to talk to Emma. He patted her on the shoulder, said she was cute, and made a joke about allowing women into the seminary. It was Dr. MacArthur.

Emma shied away and pretended to be interested in something else.

I am going to treasure that moment for a few reasons. Here they are:

1. The busiest man in the group stopped to greet a tiny child.

Jesus loved children. When disciples were concerned that too many children were coming to Jesus and tried to stop them Jesus rebuked them and called for more children to come: “Let the little children come to me.” Of course Jesus was busy, and, from a practical standpoint, one might think his time spent speaking with children could have been better used elsewhere, healing the sick perhaps. Jesus didn’t think so. The best possible use of his time at that moment was to set a child on his knee, speak tenderly to him, and extol the virtues of childlike faith.

Let us never take ourselves too seriously that we are no longer able to play games with children. And let us never be so busy that we cannot stop and coo at a small child.

2. It will be fun to tell Emma that she met one of the profoundest influences in my life.

I hope and pray that Emma will grow to love the preached Word of God and devote her life to knowing and obeying it. As she grows in her faith (Lord willing), it will be fun to tell her the exciting stories about daddy’s church history heroes. Macarthur will go down in history as one of the foremost expositors the church has seen, and as soon as Emma is able to know who he is, I will tease her about the time she gave John Macarthur the cold shoulder.

3. It gives a more human picture of the man.

It’s so easy to think of John Macarthur as a sort of well-oiled machine, pumping out expositions Sunday after Sunday.
But when he stops and chuckles with your little girl, he becomes a bit more human.

My wife always tells me she’s much not impressed with a pastor until she sees how he treats his wife and children. She’s on to something. A preacher doesn’t prove his value by his homiletics but by his home life.  There’s a vast gulf between the pulpit but and the dinner table. The way a man treats his and others’ children reveals something very important about the man and his ministry. I appreciate Macarthur’s love for the little ones, even when a dozen other responsibilities are demanding his attention.

Coming home: Thoughts on returning to Grace Brethren

In the last couple months our family has seen enormous change. This is always how we tend to do it– have a baby, start seminary, move, start a new ministry. We did that in the summer of 2010, with the birth of Emma, the start of my seminary training, and the move up to Woodland Hills for ministry at First Baptist Church Canoga Park. We did it again this winter. Baby Ella came in February, my third semester of seminary started in January, we moved to Simi Valley in October, and now, a new ministry at Grace Brethren Church starts May. Life just doesn’t stop.

It’s almost been moving too fast for me to slow down and think about it. Among many things that I’ve had to set aside during this time, my blog has taken a backseat. For me, that’s not good. I am among the Puritan ilk (in this one sense, at least), in that writing is a kind of therapy to me. Writing is thinking. Writing is reflecting. Writing is mediation. And when my writing stops, it’s a red flag reminding me that I need to slow down. For me, time is a wild, flitting butterfly that can only be captured with a net of paper and pen. I need to get these thoughts and memories in a jar. Otherwise, they get away before I have time to marvel at their surprising beauty.

So let me share a few thoughts of mine about coming home– coming back to Grace Brethren Church, that is. I am beyond excited about this. Here’s a few reasons why.

I have a stewardship that has been entrusted to me. Of course, primarily my stewardship is from God. He awakened my dead heart to faith in Christ, granted me repentance, and has sustained me since. He has gifted me and commissioned me. All that he has given me I consider a sacred trust, and I have the great responsibility to “fulfill my ministry” and “guard the good deposit.” My aim in life is simply to be faithful with that which God has given me.

Also, however, I feel, in a sense, indebted to Grace Brethren Church. Before we moved down to Fallbrook to serve as an associate pastor, I had never been a member of any other church. This was the church I was raised in, saved in, baptized in, mentored in, and trained in. In fact, were it not for a summer internship there in 2007, I maybe would never have entered the ministry. Who knows what Eric Durso would be like without this faithful church? How different would even my parents be if not for the faithful preaching of the Word by Pastor John McIntosh for all those years! I will never know all the ways this church has shaped me. And I say all that because now, in returning as a pastor, I rejoice that I get to give back all that’s been given to me. Proverbs 11:25 says “one who waters will himself be watered.” The seedling of my faith was watered by Grace Brethren Church, and I would be eminently blessed if I would be able to return the favor.

Furthermore, there are so many relationships that I’ve developed over the years with the people from Grace Brethren. Many of them I grew up with. It will be a new and refreshing experience to have all these close friends our age and in similar life-stages. “There is a friend that sticks closer than a brother,” and many of mine attend Grace Brethren. So for that, I’m grateful.

More than all these things I am excited to get on board with the gospel work that is being done there. How badly I want to be used of God to present the glories of His grace to our lost and dying world! Grace Brethren has a strong history of standing firm for the truth and moving forward with the gospel– and any movement that’s committed to those things is a movement I’m excited about.

My ultimate goal in coming back to Grace Brethren Church is to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ by my service to his church. I hope to serve the brothers I’ll be laboring alongside, and do whatever I can to help them succeed in magnifying Christ and his gospel. My desire is to be a servant of the flock assigned to me, namely the students, and teach them the Word of God in a way that puts the breath-taking glory of God on display.

Please pray for me and my family as we make this move. As is normal for a pastor entering a new ministry, there will be some time of adjustment. Our prayer is that God would quickly knit our hearts together, and that in the next few months we’ll be able to lay the foundation for a long and fruitful ministry.

Soli Deo Gloria

Take hope, sin is the root of your marriage problem

The gospel story makes it very clear that the main human problem is sin. We are sinners who sin against each other. We are sinners who respond sinfully to being sinned against. We are sinners who often respond to blessing sinfully. That’s why Jesus came—to save us from our bondage to sin.

If it’s true that sin is the core issue of failing marriages, then we have reason to hope. Why? Because Jesus came to rescue us from the destruction of sin. And he can rescue a marriage from the sin that’s destroying it.

If marriage problems were genetic, there would be trouble because Jesus didn’t come to change genes. If marriage problems are purely circumstantial, we’re in trouble because Jesus never promised to make our lives nice and neat. Since every marriage problem grows in the arid desert of indwelling sin, we are hopeful because God has given Living Water in Jesus Christ. He is a Rescuer. He rescues sinners from their sin. He is our Living Hope.

Start family worship in your home

Ever since I listened to this sermon by Dr. Joel Beeke, my perspective on family worship was changed. He made me realize it’s not optional, it’s not useless, and denying it will cost you greatly down the road. I saw him at The Gospel Coalition Conference last April and thanked him for the impact he had on my life and family.

This short article from Donald Whitney helps us keep it simple.

If you haven’t started family worship in your home, start today. You’ll find that it is:

Fun. We like to sing in the Durso house. Every night I’m home for dinner (every night except Sundays and Wednesdays) I pull out my guitar after the meal and we sing a few songs. Emma gets on her stage (the couch) and dances like crazy. It’s hilarious. We have a lot of fun.

We want to instill in our kids that it’s a joy to be a Christian. We want to enjoy God, each other, and the gifts of grace he’s given us.

Ashley's blog tells of some of the ways we try to make a joyful home

Fulfilling. I do a lot of things in ministry– and I enjoy all the things I’m involved in. But family worship is probably the most enjoyable, fulfilling times of my week. I hate when I have to miss it.

Humbling. Right now, Emma could care less about which book we read for family devotions. For all she cares, we could read a story about Big Bird. So every time we try to sit down and read, I have to come to grips that someday this effort to teach her about the Lord will pay off. Results aren’t immediate.When I’m reading about Noah and the ark, and she’s pointing at the TV and saying, “Melmo, Melmo!” I have to patiently remember that this time is an investment for the future. And it’s humbling.

Profitable. For you, your wife, and your kids. It builds unity and trust. It puts us all on the same page. When we acknowledge the greatness of God and his purposes, our problems and disagreements tend to get smaller. We reaffirm our common goals, lay aside our personal agendas, and remember the point of our existence.

If you’re a dad, you’re the leader of your household. You need to bring home the bread– especially the Bread of Life.

Dating Ashley 2012: some traditions

I am a big fan of family traditions. They seem to bridge the past with the present and help us remember the faithfulness of God for the future.

Here’s a few things we’ve been doing since we’ve been married. They help us remember the past, plan for the future, and be thankful for the present.

Around our anniversary (June 20th) we plan a night out without the kid(s). In our first year of marriage we bought a nice anniversary journal that we only pull out twice a year (anniversary and in the New Year).  In it, we record three things:

1)     Major events of the previous year of marriage. Basically, all the things that stood out. We include vacations, celebrations, life-changes, etc.

2)     A specific commitment to each other. The anniversary is a great time to talk about our marriage and be honest about our strengths and weaknesses. After an honest conversation, we write down what we want to be better at (with the Lord’s help) in our next year of marriage. We sign it.

3)     Predictions for the next year. This is purely for fun. We go back and forth, making predictions. Sometimes they’re related to family (e.g. Ashley will be pregnant by August) and sometimes they’re kinda silly (e.g. The Lakers are going to win the NBA finals). We always get a laugh out of these when we go back and look at them.

Another special date is around the New Year. It works out perfectly for us, because the New Year is the exact halfway point of our marriage year. Six months after our anniversary we get to think through our marriage and family again. We don’t go to the movies because we want to be able to talk. We make sure it’s just the two of us, so we get someone to watch Emma.

On this special date, we start by talking about the previous year. We look at the journal, the commitments we made to each other, the predictions, and the major events.

1)     We look at the anniversary journal. We look at the commitments we made on our anniversary, the predictions we thought of, and the major events.

2)     We make a top-ten event list. We get out our calendars (Ashley keeps a calendar book containing most of the year’s events) and try to remember all the big events. We always have a fun time remembering; there are always events that we had forgotten that make us laugh. Instead of writing down all the main events, we pick the top ten events and write them down. We also pull out the top ten lists from previous years. It’s fun to see the top ten events of years past—some of which are nearly forgotten or seem so insignificant.

3)     We talk about the future. After thinking about the past for a while, we start to think about the future. I try to get us thinking about potential vacations, life changes, spiritual goals, marriage commitments, parental goals, etc. We together try to imagine what the year will look like. We talk about the things we’d like to do, whether it be ministry, dates, trips, achievements, or education. We consider finances (briefly—finance talks aren’t always the most fun), what purchases we might consider making, what we’d like to save for, and where most of our money is going to go.

We’ve found these things to be good for our marriage, especially helping us maintain a sense of unity, closeness, openness, companionship, and joy. It helps us communicate and plan. It also brings us the great blessing of remember God’s providence in the past and his promise for the future. The anniversary journal is for us an Ebenezer, a fixed stone of remembrance testifying to the great mercy of our God.

Husbands, I encourage you to date your wife. Be proactive and creative. Show your children how much you treasure her. Share, as much as possible, in the grace of life together. When you share together the joys and burdens of marriage, you will find, as Ashley and I have, that the old axiom is true: your joys are doubled and burdens halved.

 

 

Top Books of 2011

I think I did as much (or more) reading in 2011 than previous years, but most of it was seminary reading, where I had to read particular sections, articles, and individual chapters, and rarely entire books. So, the year concludes, and I’ve finished only 22 books, lowest in since 2008.

Here are my five faves for 2011:

1. The Bible

I read the Bible more this year than I ever have, and with each reading I am more convinced of its divine origin. The best apologetic of the Bible is the Bible itself. Take it up, skeptic, and read.

2. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul David Tripp

I enjoy Paul David Tripp. He’s easy to read, deeply theological, and intensely practical. I rarely walk away from one of his books without desiring to change something in my life. This book is a great resource for laypeople wondering how they can have an effective ministry in church life.

3. Humility, C.J. Mahaney

I picked this book up after Tom Pennington spoke at The Shepherd’s Conference and began reading it immediately. Pennington crushed me, preaching from 1 Peter 5, and sent me seeking help in the book store. Mahaney’s book is accessible; and comes highly recommended to readers of all levels.

4. The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor: Reflections on Life and Ministry, John Piper and D.A. Carson

I read this book in two sittings. It captivated me, and might have been my favorite read of the year. Through it, I’ve been (re) inspired to be a lifelong learner, ever developing and increasing my understanding of Scripture and the ministry I’m called to.

It’s also helped me discover one of my passions in pastoral ministry, namely, training young men for the work of the ministry. It is a dream of mine to develop a system that trains young people to use their gifts in the service of the church.

5. The Next Story, Tim Challies

Challies’ book on how technology affects us is helpful. I especially benefited from the section that gives parents advice for raising kids in the digital age. If you’re trying to find a balanced look at the usefulness and potential distraction of our devices, pick up this book.

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Oh, and if you’re into that sort of thing, friend me on goodreads.