Tag Archives: A Call to Spiritual Reformation

“For what do we commonly give thanks?” by D.A. Carson

“‘We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring‘ (2 Thess. 1:3–4).

Clearly, thanksgiving is a fundamental component of the mental framework that largely controls Paul’s intercession. But for what does Paul offer thanks?

For what do we commonly give thanks? We say grace at meals, thanking God for our food; we give thanks when we receive material blessings—when the mortgage we’ve applied for comes through, or when we first turn on the ignition in a car we’ve just purchased. We may sigh a prayer of sweaty thanks after a near miss on the highway; we may utter a prayer of sincere and fervent thanks when we recover from serious illness.

We may actually offer brief thanksgiving when we hear that someone we know has recently been converted. But by and large, our thanksgiving seems to be tied rather tightly to our material well-being and comfort. The unvarnished truth is that what we most frequently give thanks for betrays what we most highly value. If a large percentage of our thanksgiving is for material prosperity, it is because we value material prosperity proportionately.

That is why, when we first turn to Paul’s thanksgivings, they may startle us; they may even seem alien, for they do not focus on what many of us habitually cherish. Paul gives thanks for signs of grace among Christians, among the Christians whom he is addressing.

1. Paul gives thanks that his readers’ faith is growing.

‘We… thank God for you,’ he says, ‘…because your faith is growing more and more’ (v. 3). Since he speaks of their growing faith, he cannot be referring to their initial conversion, but to their increasing reliance upon the Lord. Indeed, the word faith (Gk. pistis) can also mean “fidelity” or ‘faithfulness,’ and in this context ‘fidelity’ and ‘trust’ are not far apart. Growing fidelity to the Lord and his gospel is inevitably stamped by increasing trust in the Lord and his gospel; increasing trust breeds reliability. The Thessalonians are growing in their faith, not satisfied by yesterday’s attainments but stretching upward in spiritual maturity, and for this Paul gives thanks.

2. Paul gives thanks that their love is increasing.

What he has in mind in this context is not their love toward God (though he presupposes that love for God is increasing too), still less some mawkish or merely sentimental feeling, but the practical ‘love every one of you has for each other.’ If their love for one another is growing, it can only be because they are Jesus’ disciples: did not Jesus himself say that such love would be the distinguishing mark of his followers (John 13:34–35)?

It is worth probing this line of thought a little further. A close-knit society with shared ideals and goals frequently finds it relatively easy to foster love, tolerance, and inner cohesion. Whether we think of the local rock-climbing club, the regional football team, or a socially cohesive local church, a certain amount of fraternal depth is common enough. Of course, such groups may run into terrible division over power politics or a disruptive member or a nasty bit of nepotism, but some measure of transparent love is not all that unusual in such groups.

Ideally the church is different. It is made up of people who are as varied as can be: rich and poor, learned and unlearned, practical and impractical, sophisticated and unsophisticated, aristocratic and plebeian, disciplined and flighty, intense and carefree, extrovert and introvert—and everything in between. The only thing that holds such people together is their shared allegiance to Jesus Christ, their devotion to him, stemming from his indescribable love for them.

That is why it is always wretchedly pathetic when a local church becomes a cauldron of resentments and nurtured bitterness. This pitiful state of affairs may erupt simply because there is very little at the social, economic, temperamental, educational, or other levels to hold people together. Therefore, when Christians lose sight of their first and primary allegiance, they will squabble.

When social or racial or economic or temperamental uniformity seems more important than basking in the love of God in Christ Jesus, idolatry has reared its blasphemous head. When protestations of profound love for Jesus Christ are not mirrored in love for others who profess to love the same Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask how seriously we should take these protestations.

But we may put this positively. When Christians do grow in their love for each other, for no other reason than because they are loved by Jesus Christ and love him in return, that growing love is an infallible sign of grace in their lives. As Paul hears reports of the Thessalonians, he is struck by their growing love.

Such love must be the work of God, and so it is to God that Paul directs his thanks. Most emphatically is this particular display of love a signal demonstration of grace: ‘every one’ of the Thessalonian believers has been caught up in it, not some small, spiritual elite.

This is the stuff of revival, and Paul is grateful.

3. Paul gives thanks that they are persevering under trial.

Formally, of course, this particular aspect of his thanksgiving is cast in slightly different form from the other two. Still, it is unmistakable enough if we follow his line of argument.

The crucial element to notice is that Paul’s gratitude to God is not exclusively private, as if it were restricted to his prayer closet. Because the faith and love of the Thessalonians had increased, they were spiritually strong enough to persevere under the persecutions and trials they were even then enduring. Their steady perseverance was so outstanding that Paul boasts about it ‘among God’s churches’ (v. 4).

This does not mean that Paul is saying, ‘See what a great church I’ve planted!’ What he is saying is certainly not boasting of that order, for that would be boasting about himself, not boasting about them. Rather, he is saying something like this: ‘Have you noticed how powerfully the grace of God is operating in the lives of the Thessalonian believers? The way they withstand the pressures of persecution and of assorted trials is truly remarkable, a compelling testimony to the grace of God. Fortified by their growing faith and love, they just press on and on. What an example! What an encouragement! What an incentive for the rest of us!’ Thus, his boasting is nothing other than more praise and thanksgiving to God, uttered in the presence of other churches.

So what do we thank God for? Elsewhere, Paul tells us to set our hearts on things above (Col. 3:1). If what we highly cherish belongs to the realm of heaven, our hearts and minds will incline to heaven and all its values; but if what we highly cherish belongs to the realm of earth and the merely transitory, our hearts and minds will incline to the merely transitory. After all, the Master himself taught us that our hearts will run to where our treasure lies (Matt. 6:19–21).

So what does this have to do with our praying?

If in our prayers we are to develop a mental framework analogous to Paul’s, we must look for signs of grace in the lives of Christians, and give God thanks for them. It is not simply that Paul gives thanks for whatever measure of maturity some group of Christians has achieved, before he goes on to ask for yet more maturity (though in part that is what he is doing). Rather, the specific elements in his thanksgiving show the framework of values he brings to his intercession—and we urgently need to develop the same framework.

For what have we thanked God recently?

Have we gone over a list of members at our local church, say, or over a list of Christian workers, and quietly thanked God for signs of grace in their lives?

Do we make it a matter of praise to God when we observe evidence in one another of growing conformity to Christ, exemplified in trust, reliability, love, and genuine spiritual stamina?”

–D.A. Carson, Praying With Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992/2015), 40–44.

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“Bless us, Lord God, with faithfulness” by D.A. Carson

“And now, Lord God, I ask your blessing on all who read this book, for without it there will be no real benefit.

We may have education, but not compassion; we may have forms of praying, but no fruitful adoration and intercession; we may have oratory, but be lacking in unction; we may thrill your people, but not transform them; we may expand their minds, but display too little wisdom and understanding; we may amuse many, but find few who are solidly regenerated by your blessed Holy Spirit.

So we ask you for Your blessing, for the power of the Spirit, that we may know You better and grow in our grasp of Your incalculable love for us.

Bless us, Lord God, not with ease or endless triumph, but with faithfulness. Bless us with the right number of tears, and with minds and hearts that hunger both to know and to do your Word.

Bless us with a profound hunger and thirst for righteousness, a zeal for truth, a love of people. Bless us with the perspective that weighs all things from the vantage point of eternity.

Bless us with a transparent love of holiness. Grant to us strength in weakness, joy in sorrow, calmness in conflict, patience when opposed or attacked, trustworthiness under temptation, love when we are hated, firmness and farsightedness when the climate prefers faddishness and drift.

We beg of You, holy and merciful God, that we may be used by You to extend Your kingdom widely, to bring many to know and love You truly.

Grant above all that our lives will increasingly bring glory to Your dear Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip us with everything good for doing His will, and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

–D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 225-226.

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“The orb of Jesus’ sovereignty” by D.A. Carson

“What would you have chosen to describe God’s power? When you think of God’s sovereignty, to what does your mind turn?

I confess I am inclined to think of God’s power in creation. He speaks, and worlds leap into being. He designs the water molecule, with its remarkable atomic structure that ensures greater density is achieved at four degrees Centigrade than at the freezing point, so that lakes and rivers freeze not from the bottom up but from the top down, providing a blanket of ice with water underneath so that fish can survive.

I think of God calculating the mathematics of quarks, with half-lives in billionths of a second. I think of God designing each star and upholding the universe by His powerful word. I think of the pleasure he takes in the woodpecker, with its specially designed tailfeathers that enable it to peck with such force. I marvel at a God who creates emus and cheetahs and the duck-billed platypus. His power extends beyond the limits of our imagination.

But that is not what Paul turns to. After all, for an omnipotent God there cannot be degrees of difficulty. There is no one act that is ‘most powerful.’ Paul does not hunt for the most powerful or the most difficult displays of God’s power, since such categories are essentially meaningless. Rather, he hunts for the most glorious, the most revealing. As a result, he focuses on three events.

Paul mentions the power exerted when Christ was raised from death. The power that Christians must experience is like the power God exerted in Christ ‘when He raised Him from the dead’ (1:20). Paul thinks of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here is the undoing of death, the destruction of sin; Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of the mighty resurrection that will mock the death of death and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. Small wonder Paul elsewhere declares that he wants to know Christ and the power of His resurrection (Phil. 3:10).

Paul describes the power displayed in the exalted Christ. The power that Christians must experience is like the power God exerted in Christ ‘when He … seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come’ (1:20–21). There are levels of authority of which we know very little, demonic powers and seraphic powers, not only in this world but in the heavenlies (see Col. 1:16). But over all of them is Christ Jesus, elevated to the Father’s right hand in consequence of His obedience to death and His victorious resurrection (see Phil. 2:6–11).

Indeed, this vision controls part of the line of argument in chapter 2. There Paul says that although we were dead in our trespasses and sins and were by nature objects of wrath (2:1), nevertheless because of His great love for us, God, ‘who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.… [and] raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus’ (2:4–6). Of course, in one sense I’m still here, not there. But because God views me as ‘in Christ,’ and Christ is seated with His Father in the heavenlies, therefore God views me as there in principle. That is my destination; that is where I properly belong, because of God’s great love for me. That is why my Canadian citizenship can never be more than secondary: I’m already a citizen of the new Jerusalem, and I am seated with Christ in the heavenlies.

Paul declares the power exercised by Christ over everything—for the church. ‘God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way’ (1:22–23). All of God’s sovereignty is mediated through Christ (see 1 Cor. 15:27; Ps. 110:1), and all of this sovereign power is for the good of the church. Christ is the head over everything: that is, He exercises authority over everything. But this ‘head’ metaphor takes a sudden shift when the ‘body’ is introduced. Although Christ is the head over everything, He is in particular the head of the church, which is His body. He is ideally placed to ensure that all of His sovereignty is exercised for His people’s good.

Not a drop of rain can fall outside the orb of Jesus’ sovereignty. All our days—our health, our illnesses, our joys, our victories, our tears, our prayers, and the answers to our prayers—fall within the sweep of the sovereignty of One who wears a human face, a thorn-shadowed face. All of God’s sovereignty is mediated through One who was crucified on my behalf.”

–D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 178-180. Carson is commenting on Ephesians 1:3-23.

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“He sent us a Savior” by D.A. Carson

“If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, He would have sent an economist.

If He had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, He would have sent us a comedian or an artist.

If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, He would have sent us a politician.

If He had perceived that our greatest need was health, He would have sent us a doctor.

But He perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from Him, our profound rebellion, our death; and He sent us a Savior.”

–D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 109.

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“Only by grace” by D.A. Carson

“We become fruitful by grace; we persevere by grace; we mature by grace; by grace we grow to love one another the more, and by grace we cherish holiness and a deepening knowledge of God.

Therefore Paul reminds his readers at the end of his prayer that everything he has asked for is available only on the basis of grace. The Savior himself cannot be glorified in our lives, nor can we be finally glorified, apart from the grace that He provides.”

–D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 60–61.

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“My father was a church planter in Québec” by D.A. Carson

“My life has been blessed by some influential models. I must begin by mentioning my own parents. I remember how, even when we children were quite young, each morning my mother would withdraw from the hurly-burly of life to read her Bible and pray.

In the years that I was growing up, my father, a Baptist minister, had his study in our home. Every morning we could hear him praying in that study. My father vocalized when he prayed—loudly enough that we knew he was praying, but not loudly enough that we could hear what he was saying.

Every day he prayed, usually for about forty-five minutes. Perhaps there were times when he failed to do so, but I cannot think of one. My father was a church planter in Québec, in the difficult years when there was strong opposition, some of it brutal. Baptist ministers alone spent a total of eight years in jail between 1950 and 1952.

Dad’s congregations were not large; they were usually at the lower end of the two-digit range. On Sunday mornings after the eleven o’clock service, Dad would often play the piano and call his three children to join him in singing, while Mum completed the preparations for dinner.

But one Sunday morning in the late fifties, I recall, Dad was not at the piano, and was not to be found. I finally tracked him down. The door of his study was ajar. I pushed it open, and there he was, kneeling in front of his big chair, praying and quietly weeping.

This time I could hear what he was saying. He was interceding with God on behalf of the handful of people to whom he had preached, and in particular for the conversion of a few who regularly attended but who had never trusted Christ Jesus.

In the ranks of ecclesiastical hierarchies, my father is not a great man. He has never served a large church, never written a book, never discharged the duties of high denominational office. Doubtless his praying, too, embraces idioms and stylistic idiosyncrasies that should not be copied.

But with great gratitude to God, I testify that my parents were not hypocrites. That is the worst possible heritage to leave with children: high spiritual pretensions and low performance.

My parents were the opposite: few pretensions, and disciplined performance. What they prayed for were the important things, the things that congregate around the prayers of Scripture.

And sometimes when I look at my own children, I wonder if, should the Lord give us another thirty years, they will remember their father as a man of prayer, or think of him as someone distant who was away from home rather a lot and who wrote a number of obscure books. That quiet reflection often helps me to order my days.”

–D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 25–26.

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“All the blessings God has for us” by D.A. Carson

“Everything that is coming to us from God comes through Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus has won our pardon; He has reconciled us to God; He has canceled our sin; He has secured the gift of the Spirit for us; He has granted eternal life to us and promises us the life of the consummation; He has made us children of the new covenant; His righteousness has been accounted as ours; He has risen from the dead, and all of God’s sovereignty is mediated through Him and directed to our good and to God’s glory. This is the Son whom God sent to redeem us. In God’s all-wise plan and all-powerful action, all these blessings have been won by His Son’s odious death and triumphant resurrection. All the blessings God has for us are tied up with the work of Christ.”

–D.A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992/2006), 189.

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