Posted by: stpowen | September 30, 2012

Drawing Near to God

Drawing Near To God

James 4:8a.  ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.’

2 Chronicles 15:15.  ‘And all Judah rejoiced at the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart and sought [God] with all their soul; and He was found by them, and the LORD gave them rest all around.’

‘Things have come to a pretty pass if religion is going to get personal!’  (Lord Melbourne, 19th Century British Prime Minister)

[From a sermon first preached at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth]

I take for my text this evening, the first part of James 4:8.  ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.’  I want to look at what people call the ‘felt’ or ‘manifest’ presence of God and how we may seek to obtain it.  In doing so I want to divide this talk, like Gaul, into three parts:

1. We shall consider what the Bible means when it speaks of drawing near to God and deal with two misconceptions about the matter.

2. Looking at James 4:1-10, we shall discover three things that keep us apart from God.

3. From the same text, we shall find seven commands from the Holy Spirit which will lead us toward God.

There are two erroneous teachings concerning the nearness of God.  The first is the ‘second blessing’ teaching which divides Christians into first and second classes.  We are told that when we are converted, we are saved, but we can’t really get a close relationship with God until we have a second blessing, the whatnot of the Spirit.  I use the term whatnot because this supposed experience is sometimes called the ‘baptism of the Spirit, sometimes it is the ‘sealing’ of the Spirit, sometimes (especially in ‘Word-Faith’ circles) it is the anointing of the Spirit, and sometimes, especially in the Alpha Course, it is the ‘Filling of the Spirit.’  Once you have this ‘whatnot,’ we are told, you have moved onto a new plane and you have a new, closer relationship with God, usually accompanied by speaking in ‘tongues.’(1)

Although this teaching is associated with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (2), I do not hesitate to say that this teaching is wholly erroneous and very damaging.  I think I can show from the Bible that baptism with (or ‘in’) the Spirit, the sealing of the Spirit and the anointing are all things that happen to every Christian at the time he is saved and are not necessarily experiential.  The ‘filling’ of the Spirit is more difficult, but no one in Scripture ever received THE filling of the Spirit; rather, people are filled with the Spirit, usually to empower them for some task, and then a short time later they may be filled again.  For example, Peter was filled at Pentecost, and then again in Acts 4:8.  Paul was filled with the Spirit when he regained his sight (Acts 9:17) and again in Acts 13:9.  The term ‘full of the Holy Spirit’ is also used in Acts 6:3, 5; 11:24 to describe people who exhibit clearly the fruit of the Spirit in their lives.

Let’s look at a few Scriptures that cover the other terms.  1 Cor. 12:13. ‘For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.’  All of us have drunk, all of us were baptized(3). There’s no room for first and second class here.  Next, let’s look at the ‘sealing of the Spirit’ in Eph. 1:13b.  ‘In whom [Christ] also, having believed, you were sealed with the Spirit of promise.’  Whom is the Apostle writing to?  ‘To the saints who are in Ephesus, faithful in Christ Jesus’ (1:1).  He is writing to Christians and telling them that every one of them was sealed with (or ‘by’) the Spirit.  When did it happen?  When they believed.

Nest, we’ll look at the ‘anointing of the Spirit’ in  1 John 2:20, NIV.  ‘But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.’  Whom is John writing to?  To his ‘little children,’ his ‘beloved ones.’  In other words, to Christians, and they all have an anointing.  Finally, let’s look at Peter speaking on the Day of Pentecost:  ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 2:38).  The gift is for everyone who repents and believes on the Lord Jesus.  I rest my case.  Every Christian is baptized in the Spirit, anointed with the Spirit, sealed with the Spirit.  ‘If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His’ (Rom. 8:9b).  Our experience of this may vary, as we shall see, but the fact is clear.  There are no second-class Christians.  ‘Our fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves, not in our stars, that we are underlings.’{3}

On the other hand there are many Christians who are unhappy with the very idea of God drawing near and drawing away.  To their mind God wouldn’t do any such thing.  They look at the verse which says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20), and they assume that God is always with His people at exactly the same distance.  But consider Psalm 90:13.  ‘Return, O LORD!  How long [will it be]?  And have compassion on Your servants.’  Now who in His right mind would ask God to return if He had never been away?  Or look at our text; ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.’  What sense is there in such words if God did not sometimes remove Himself at a distance from His people?  Or consider the words of the prophet in 2 Chron. 15:2.  “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin.  The LORD is with you while you are with Him.  If you seek Him He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you.”  What these verses tell us is that, experimentally at least, God is not at a uniform distance from His servants.  He draws near and He draws away; and His nearness or otherwise is often affected by the diligence with which His people seek Him.

If you are a Christian, let me ask you- What is your experience of these things?  Is God always at the same distance from you?  Do you feel Him to be so?  If I had to answer for myself, I would say, absolutely not.  At times God has been wonderfully close to me, and at other times, and all too often, I have felt Him to be distressingly far off.   But is this not the general experience of the saints?  That God feels sometimes so near that worship just wells out of you, and other times so distant that you have to force yourself to behave and express your love to Him like a Christian?

Now James 4:8 tells us that it is usually our fault when God distances Himself from us.  ‘Draw near to God,’ he says, and the implication is that it is we ourselves who are too far from God.  But sometimes God draws away from His children for purely sovereign reasons.  He tests new Christians to prove their faith is genuine.  Prov. 17:3 says, ‘The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart.’   At other times God absents Himself to teach us to walk by faith.  The Puritans used to speak of the ‘Long, dark night of the soul,’ and Isaiah asks, ‘Who among you fears the LORD?  Who obeys the voice of His servant?  Who walks in darkness and has no light?  Let him trust in the name of the LORD and rely upon his God’ (Isaiah 50:10).  If we constantly had this wonderful assurance and felt presence of God, we would forget what it means to walk by faith.

So sometimes God draws away from His people for His own sovereign purposes and for our own good, but mostly it is because His folk have distanced themselves from Him.  I want now to look at James 4 to find three statements which tell us how we lose communion with God.  It will be helpful now to pause and read James 4:1-10.

Statement Number One is that covetous desires war within us and render our prayers useless.  Consider James 4:1-3.  We serve a Saviour who in this world was so poor that He had to borrow a penny to illustrate His teaching.  Luke 1:53 says, ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.’  We need to be hungry for God if we would have Him fill us, but instead the opulence that we in the West see all around us causes us to hunger after the things of the world.  If we allow our desires for wealth and comfort to draw us away from God, we will forfeit His felt presence and companionship in our lives.  There is a teaching which says that God always answers prayer;  well verse 3 tells us that He does no such thing, unless we take ‘no’ for an answer.  Janis Joplin sang, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?”  The answer to that is almost certainly ‘no.’  ‘If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that’ (1 Tim 4:8).  If we do ask God for money, let it be for His work and then we may be answered positively.

Statement Number Two is that, ‘Friendship with the world is enmity with God’ (v.4).  The Greek word translated ‘enmity’ here is echthra which can also mean ‘discord,’ ‘feuding’ or even ‘hatred.’  Interestingly, v.4 is also the only place in the N.T. where Christians, who are supposed to be the bride of Christ, are called adulterers.  Worldly Christians are given that title because they give their best affections to the world rather than to God {4}.  They forsake the One who is their Maker and their Husband for the smiles and favours of the world.   Paul says, ‘If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ’ (Gal. 1:10).  The Christian should be an offense to the world and our life-styles should be a rebuke to it.  The Lord Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own.  Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you’ (John 15:19).  So if the world loves us, that is a sign that we belong to the world and not to God.  Yet today one sees Christians of all ages desperately trying to hold on to God with one hand and to the world with the other.  It can’t be done.  “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Statement Number Three is that pride separates us from God (v.6).  Consider Isaiah 57:15.  Here we are told that there are only two places where God dwells {4}:  one is in the ‘High and lofty place’- heaven; far above and far apart from Mankind.  The other is in the heart of the humble and contrite.  You see, God does not dwell with the proud; on the contrary, He ‘opposes’ them.  In fact that is an understatement.  The Greek word is antitassetai, which has the meaning of setting oneself in battle array against someone.  So why is God so opposed to pride?  Because it is the root of a great many other sins.  Do you think you know what the sin of Sodom was?  Well, have a look at Ezekiel 16:49 and you will see that the first sin, the root of all else, was pride.  [If you have ever observed a ‘Gay Pride’ march, you will know that not much has changed]  If you want to have any sort of relationship with God, you should start by humbling yourself.

Having given us these three statments, James gives us seven commands from the Lord, two of which have lovely promises attached.  Firstly, ‘Submit to God’ (v.7).  This is true humility.  It is the confession that God is right and I am wrong.  Sometimes when I preach, someone will come up to me afterwards and say, “Thank you.   That was very interesting.  I’m going to have to think about it.”  Now if he is going away to think about whether I was handling God’s word properly, fair enough; but if it’s God’s word you’re reading  here then what is there to think about?  Why not say to yourself, “This is God’s word and I submit to it”?  It is pride that makes you filter the Bible through your own prejudices and stand in judgement of it.  “Well, that’s what God thinks, but I’m not quite sure I’m ready to do that just now.  I think God’s being a bit severe.”  You will never have a close relationship with God until you treat His word, all of it, with the respect it deserves and demands.  “If you love me,” said the Lord Jesus, “Keep My commandments.”  Very well then; if we love Him, let us do it.  Let us submit to His word.

Command No.2 is ‘Resist the devil and he will flee from you.’  Let me ask you, is that your experience?  Do you find that day by day you are resisting the devil and that day by day he is fleeing from you?   Or are you finding that day by day you are finding it easier to give in than to resist and that increasingly Satan has you in his grip?  It was Oscar Wilde who said, “I can resist anything except temptation.”  Well, this command does not come without a promise.  The devil fled from Christ when He resisted him, and he will flee from us also, if only for a season, if we will follow our Lord’s example.  Very well then.  Let us resist, walking in the power of the Spirit, fixing our eyes upon Jesus (Heb 12:1-3).

Command No.3 is ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.’  Clearly the suggestion is that we are farther away from God than we should be; that we have  drifted away from the Lord through our wordliness and our carelessness and have wandered into our own Bypath Meadows and become increasingly distant from our Lord. So how do we draw near to God?   Well if you want to get to know anyone, you have to spend time in his company, talk to him, listen when he speaks to you and then think about the things that he’s said.  So it is with God.  Set aside the time you need, pray, read the Bible and meditate upon what you’ve read.  And do it constantly.  Psalm 16 says, ‘I have set the LORD always before me.’  Always.  This man was constantly meditating upon God.  Not just for ten minutes a day (though that would be a start) but at every spare moment.  You need to be thinking about God and His greatness and His goodness to you, and whispering little prayers to Him.  Pick a few verses from Psalm 119 and think about them during the day.  Dump that trashy novel and read a really good Christian book; and as you do these things, you will find God drawing near to you.  What greater incentive could there be to draw near to God?

Next, we come to repentance.  ‘Wash your hands, you sinners.’   Let nothing come between you and God.  You cannot draw close to God while you are breaking His holy laws.  The Psalmist says,  ‘If  I regard iniquity in my heart, the LORD will not hear [me]’ (Psalm 66:18), and asks, ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24). 

No. 5 is, ‘Purify your hearts, you double-minded.’  The Lord Jesus declared, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they- and by inference only they- shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8).  We need to come to the place where we have singular hearts- hearts that are set on God alone.  Listen to Paul in Phil. 3:7-8.  ‘But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yet indeed, I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whom I  have suffered the loss of all things, and count them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.’  We need to tear down every idol from our hearts and place the Lord where He belongs- on the throne, to reign alone in our lives.

The sixth command (verse 9) is one that is very foreign to the modern church.  We are to grieve and mourn over our sins and our distance from God.  And if ever there was a time for the churches in Britain to be mourning, it is right now, when God’s judgement seems to be falling increasingly upon us and the country is falling into the most desperate wickedness; yet the churches seem to be unaware that anything is wrong and many of them are permanently engaged in the most hectic jollity.  Yes, I do believe that we should be mourning, but even here there is a promise for us:  ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’  When God sees godly sorrow in a believer, He draws near and gives him a wonderful sense of that nearness.  Let us bring our sorrow for our sins and for our poor benighted land before Him so that we may obtain His comfort.

Finally then, if we do these things, which are all summed up in the final command, to humble ourselves in His sight (verse 10), God promises to lift us up.  Oh that there might be in all our hearts today, a determination; ‘I just can’t go on with this distance and separation from God; the distress factor is too great.’  And my constant prayer is that we might come and covenant together, like the Israelites in Asa’s time in 2 Chronicles 15, to seek the Lord with all our hearts and all our souls, for when we do so He will be found by us and people will join themselves to us, because they will see that God is truly with us.

Notes

{1}  The Greek words for ‘tongues’ is glossa ( glossa)which means either the organ that resides immediately behind our teeth, or a language.  Glossa does not mean an ecstatic outpouring of untranslatable verbiage.

{2}  There is no Christian writer from whom I have benefitted more than Dr. Lloyd-Jones.  However, his  teaching on the ‘sealing’ of the Spirit is, in my opinion, wholly erroneous, and has done great damage to to the Church.

{3} Shakespeare,  Julius Caesar.

{4}  Obviously, I am aware that God is omni-present.  Throughout this article I am speaking of His felt or manifest presence.

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