Thanksgiving Toward the Past, Faith Toward the Future
A Parable: The Anvil
Let's begin with a parable today. Once upon a time in land before there were any cars or modern machines — a time when horses and carriages and wagons were common on the dirt roads — there was a blacksmith shop with a large, heavy, well-worn anvil. One day a little farm boy, who had never left the farm, came with his father to town for the first time. Everything was new and different. As he walked with his father down the unpaved main street, he heard a loud clang . . . clang . . . clang. He said to his father, "What's that?" His father said, "Come, I'll show you." He took his son to the door of the blacksmith's shop. And there the boy saw a huge man, a strong man, lifting a big, heavy hammer with a long handle and a large head on it high in the air, as if to chop down a tree, and then crashing it down on a glowing piece of metal on top of the anvil. He hit the anvil so hard that it made the boy wince with every blow. His father explained to him that this was a blacksmith who made all kinds of metal pieces for wagons and carriages and plows and tools and horseshoes.
But the little boy was fixed on one thing: the long, heavy hammer and the great metal anvil. They met each other with such a loud sound and with such a force that he thought surely this anvil could not last long. The big, strong blacksmith paused for a moment to catch his breath, and saw the boy standing in the doorway. "Aren't you going to break that thing?" the boy asked, pointing at the anvil. But the blacksmith smiled and said, "This anvil is a hundred years old and has worn out many hammers."
The Bible: Forged in the Furnace of Truth
Here's the point of the parable. The Bible is an anvil that has worn out a thousand hammers. In every generation, new, huge, heavy hammers are forged against the truth of the Bible. And strong men lift the hammers and pound on the Scriptures. People with no historical perspective — like little boys who've never been to town — see it and say, "Surely the Bible will be destroyed." But others who know their history a little better say, "This Bible was forged in the furnace of divine truth and has worn out many hammers."
In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah said, "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:8). And Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Matthew 24:35).
Why is this? Why has the Bible worn out a thousand hammers? Why does the Bible survive generation after generation as a living and powerful book in the lives of millions of people? The answer can be found in two observations: one is that God endures from generation to generation. And the other is that the Bible is the Word of God.
In Psalm 90:1-2 Moses says, "Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were born, or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God." And in the New Testament, Hebrews 13:8 says, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." The reason the Bible has worn out a thousand hammers is because it is the Word of God who endures from everlasting to everlasting, and because its central character is Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
Bubbles and Fads
There are two reasons why I point this out. One is that I want to build my life on something that lasts. And I think most of you would share this desire. I don't want to build my life on sand. I don't want to spend my life chasing bubbles that shimmer with beauty and pop as soon as you catch them. I want to build my life on something durable — something like an anvil that breaks a thousand hammers.
The other reason why I point out the indestructible toughness of the Bible is to contrast it with the incredibly short shelf-life of the ever-changing remedies and treatments and schemes of hope in our day. Schemes of hope that leave out of account God and Christ and sin and salvation and repentance and death and heaven and hell. They leave these great realities out of consideration as if they were non-realities or inconsequential, like unicorns and Cyclopses and flat-earth theories. These treatments and remedies and schemes of hope put themselves forward with great forcefulness. But how many people notice how short is the life of God-neglecting promises of hope?
Let me illustrate what I mean, and I give credit here to David Powlison in an article titled "Biological Psychiatry" (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, 17/3, Spring, 1999, 2-8). I don't know if you have noticed yet, but there has been a sea change in the world of mental health in the last five years or so. When was the last time you heard anybody talking about codependency? Just twelve years ago this was all the rage. Melody Beattie's Codependent No More and John Bradshaw's Homecoming were best-sellers. Wherever you turned, from books to talk shows to seminars, the diagnosis of our problems was the same: dysfunctional families of origin. Past emotional pain and emptiness were the primal causes of our present misery and misbehavior. And the remedy? Psychotherapy with sensitive non-judgmental counselors and support groups with those who felt your pain and understood your woundedness.
That was in its heyday of the eighties. But then something changed. Something always changes. Diagnoses and remedies that are not built on the full embrace of God's Word must always fade. These things slip up on you. And you suddenly realize: hmm, those kinds of books aren't being written any more. People don't seem to be talking with the same confidence they used to about the dynamics of the wounded soul. What ever became of codependency?
What's happened? Well, there's a new excitement, a new scheme of hope. The new scheme is more biological and less psychological. In the place of the needy, hurting, wounded soul has now arisen the dysfunctional brain. It's not the family of origin now that has center stage, but hormones and genes and chemicals and neurotransmitters. And what are the new books today? Harold Koplewicz's It's Nobody's Fault, that explains the problems of human life in terms of neurotransmitter shortages; and Peter Kramer's Listening to Prozac, that says we have entered an era of "cosmetic psychopharmacology."
Here's the way David Powlison describes the shift:
The world did change in the mid-90s. The action is now in your body. It's what you got from Mom and Dad, not what they did to you. The excitement is about brain functions, not family dysfunctions. The cutting edge is in the hard science medical research and psychiatry, not squishy soft, philosophy-of-life, feel-your-pain psychologies.
Psychiatry's back. . . . Biology is suddenly hot. Psychiatry has suddenly broken forth, a blitzkrieg sweeping away all opposition. The insurance companies love it because drugs seem more like "medicine," seem to be cheaper than talk, and promise more predictable results. Psychotherapy professionals are on the defensive. (Powlison, "Biological Psychiatry," 3)
The point is this: I want my life to be built on something more durable than a 15-year-long therapeutic fad. And make no mistake: the present craze with genes and hormones and neurotransmitters and the Human Genome Project and genomic mapping and chemical therapies — this excitement too will fade and we will move on to something else. And in its wake will be left vast disillusionment. No fulfilled life. No fountain of youth. No utopia. No comfort at death. And millions of people will be left with the question: is there a more durable hope to build my life on? Is there a diagnosis of my condition and a remedy for my flaws and a promise for the future that will not pass by like a fad in one generation, and leave me feeling like an out-of-date fool using leeches to cure my headache?
Or to ask it another way: When Ritalin has calmed you down and Prozac has cheered you up, then what? The promise of these things seems so big, when it fact the pay-off is so small. All the things that never change, all the things that last, all the really big things in life and eternity still wait to be addressed: God, Christ, sin, redemption, repentance, faith, forgiveness, death, heaven, hell, eternal life.
The Eternal Realities of the Bible
Which brings us back to where we started: there is a rugged, unchanging, solid anvil called the Bible. It has outlived all fads and broken a thousand hammers of criticism. It doesn't sweat the small stuff very much; its message deals with the big things that never change from generation to generation. And what is the message?
The message of the Bible is this. It has to do with four great realities: God, sin, Christ, faith.
"In the beginning God . . ." — the first verse of the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). There is a personal, infinite, eternal, just, loving, holy God who made this universe and everything in it to reflect his glory — his greatness and beauty and power and wisdom and justice and mercy. He had no beginning. He is absolute Reality. He depends on nothing. He says that his name is simply, "I am" (Exodus 3:14). This great, personal, eternal God made you to know him and to enjoy him and display him in the world. The prophet Isaiah said, "Bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed, even whom I have made" (Isaiah 43:7). The first great reality is God, who made us to enjoy and display his glory.
But the second great reality that the Bible teaches us about is sin. If the purpose of our existence is to know and enjoy and reflect the glory of God as our highest value, then sin is our failure to do that. The apostle Paul puts it like this in the greatest letter ever written, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Notice two things: sin is about everybody and sin is about God. All of us have sinned. There is no exception. And sin mainly has to do with our relationship to God, not man. Sin hurts people. But that's not the main reason it is evil. The main reason is that God is worthy of our trust and obedience and worship and our joy, but we treat him like a raincoat, leaving him in the closet forgotten until it rains hard enough outside. God is not a raincoat for bad days. He is the Giver of the sunlight and the Creator of the clouds and the Sustainer of every breath you take and the Judge of all the living and the dead.
Therefore, our neglect of God is a great evil and we are guilty of sin in his presence. The Bible says, "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We are under the sentence of God's eternal judgment. And we will perish unless God himself provides a Redeemer to save us from our sin and from his wrath.
Which brings us to the third great reality of the Scriptures: the central character of history, Jesus Christ. O for a thousand tongues to describe the greatness of the God-Man Christ Jesus! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:1-3, 14).
Jesus Christ is the Son of God, eternal, without beginning, but with the Father from everlasting to everlasting, truly God. And yet, he was made flesh, that is, became human. Why? Because without a human nature he couldn't die. But his aim in coming was to die. He lived to die. Why? Why would God send his Son to die? Because God's heart toward us is not only wrath flowing from his justice, but also mercy flowing from his love. And to satisfy both justice and love, God substituted his Son to die in our place. Jesus said, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). He came to give his life as a ransom to rescue sinners from hell.
This is the center of Christianity. God sent his own Son to provide a substitute for all who would be saved from sin. A substitute life, and a substitute death. Jesus Christ lived a perfect life of faith and obedience to God. And he died a totally undeserved, horrific, and obedient death by crucifixion. Therefore, all of us who are saved by him from the wrath of God are saved because our sin is laid on him, and his righteousness is credited to us. "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6). "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This is the center and heart of Christianity. This is the deepest need of every human being that no medicine and no therapy will ever touch.
Which leaves one last great Biblical reality to mention. What must I do to be saved by Jesus Christ from my sin? How can I obtain forgiveness and acceptance with God? How can I prepare to die so that on the other side of this life I will have everlasting joy in the presence of God — and in that hope become the kind of risk-taking, humble, loving, sacrificial person that the world so desperately needs?
The answer of the Bible is: Trust Christ. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him [that is, trusts in him] should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Trust him that everything he says he has done, he has done; and everything he says he will do, he will do; and everything he says he is, he is. Trust him, and you will be saved.
And you will live the rest of your life in the place of greatest healing. Where is that? It is the solid, durable, invincible, anvil-like place between thankfulness toward the past and faith toward the future. The aim of psychotherapy and the aim of medicine is to give us healing. But there is no place of greater, deeper, more lasting healing than to be in Christ with sins forgiven and heaven secured, living moment by moment looking back with thankfulness on all that God has done for us, and looking forward at all God promises to do for us because of Christ.
It's a great place to live. I invite you, I urge you, trust Christ and take your eternal place between bygone grace and future grace where gratitude and faith, thankfulness and confidence fill the soul and make it well.
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