A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Psalm 46

Dr. Jim Denison

President Bush calls the tragedy of this week “the first war of the twenty-first century.” This has been a week of horror and shock of a kind our nation has never experienced. As long as you live, you will never forget where you were or what you were doing on September 11, 2001. But a mighty fortress is our God.

The World Trade Center towers in New York City stood 1,368 feet tall, comprising 110 stories each. Costing $400 million, they were the tallest buildings in the world when they were completed in 1973. A person could see for 45 miles from their observation decks at the top. They were actually designed to withstand an airplane collision, but the fires from the attacks of September 11 destroyed their infrastructures. If they could collapse, anything manmade can. But a mighty fortress is our God.

Martin Luther wrote Christendom’s most famous hymn in the midst of a world in collapse and change. Reformation and Renaissance were shaking the very foundations of his culture and nation. Psalm 46 became his anchor in the hurricane, his shelter in the storm. He wrote his hymn to claim its promises, to seize this anchor. His hymn has been translated into 183 languages. We will grasp its hope today.

Here our gravest and greatest questions are answered. Let’s ask them together.

Why did this tragedy happen?

The first question any human asks in a crisis like this is, Why? Why did this happen? Many have asked me that question this week, from young people to older adults. As they ask themselves and each other the same question. Why?

There is a political answer to the question, of course. If it is confirmed that Islamic terrorists planned and executed this act of war, we know that they did so in retaliation for our nation’s support for Israel. Please remember that this act would then represent only an extreme, radical fringe within the Arab Muslim world. Please do not associate all Arabs or Muslims with this outrage. Shooting at a mosque in Dallas is terrorism as well. There is a political reason for this assault on our country, and we will know it in time.

But there is a spiritual answer to the question as well, and it deserves our focus today. Our text promises that God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (v. 1). If he is such a help in trouble, why did he allow this trouble, this tragedy? If he is our refuge and strength, why did this atrocity happen at all?

You know that God made us with free will, so we could choose to worship him. As we remembered just last week, we exist to worship and glorify our Creator. Freedom of will is necessary to this purpose.

And so God has given us free will, and he will not take it away from us. Could God have stopped these terrorists? Yes, by removing their free will. But then he would have to remove yours and mine as well. He would have to prevent every human attempt to sin and attack others. We could no longer be free to worship God or love each other. We could not be human. And this God cannot and will not do that.

As long as there is life on this fallen planet, there will be misused free will and its sin. Not because this is the will of God, but because it is the will of man.

A second spiritual reason for this atrocity is just as clear: Satan is very, very real. Peter called him “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Jesus warned us that he “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Luther was right: “Still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”

So America has now joined that tragic list of nations which have experienced the atrocity of terrorism on our own soil. From Israel to Ireland, from the Balkans to Indonesia, from Lebanon to Somalia, much of the world knows the grief and outrage we feel today.

Last Sunday we never dreamed we would see the week that has been. But our nation has lived through it. What do we do now?

What do we do now?

Our nation faces tragedy and crisis. So do many of you.

Some of you have family and friends directly affected by this atrocity. Some of you have family and friends scattered over the world, trying to get home. Some of you work in vocations which will be directly affected by this week’s events. We all grieve in shock and pain, as we wonder how our lives will be forever changed.

And some of us face other crises which are very real and personal for us. In the midst of the horrors of these days, I’ve also walked with members of our church family who are in marital crisis, financial crisis, health crisis. Surgeries await; diseases progress; funerals have been held; many are hurting in ways less visible than the tragedy in New York City but no less real.

What do we do now? Our Psalm has the answers.

First, run to God (v. 1).

“God is our refuge and strength,” his word promises us. A “refuge” is a place where we go to escape, to be sheltered and safe. But we must choose to go there. A refuge is no good unless we use it. If we think we can stand the storm, the crisis, the tragedy alone, this refuge cannot help us.

So run to God. The Hebrew word for “refuge” is literally “a place to which we flee.” Don’t walk—run to him. Run to his help, his power, his love, his grace. And seek the strength he offers. His power and help can be yours, if you will ask for it from him.

Sometimes God calms the storms, and sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms his child. A troubled saint said, “I prayed for less wind in my sails, and God gave me more sails for the wind.”

Luther is right: “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.”

For we cannot. But he can. When it seems hardest to trust in him, that is the time we need to trust in him the most. Run to God.

Second, refuse to fear (2-3).

We can only refuse fear after we have gone to God. This is impossible in our own strength and ability. But if we are in God’s refuge and are empowered by his strength, we need not fear anything the world can do to us. No matter how frightened we feel about the present and the future, about what this week will mean to our lives, we can refuse to fear.

The Psalmist says it is so: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (v. 2-3). Earthquakes were the greatest natural disasters the ancient world knew. They could not predict them or prevent them. But though the earth itself give way, we will not fear.

Mountains were the highest structures known to that day. They could not build 110-story structures, so they were awed by the mountains they saw. But even if the mountains fall into the sea, we will not fear.

The seas were a present fact of life to most of the ancient world, as it was built along the oceans’ edges. But though your world “roar and foam” like the waves of the seas, the tossing of the tides, and though your mountains “quake with their surging,” we will not fear.

We can refuse to fear. Scripture says, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Someone said it well: Fear knocked at the door, faith answered, and there was no one there. Run to God, and ask him for his help as you refuse to fear.

Luther continues: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.” Run to God, and refuse to fear.

Third, release your hate (9).

This is the hardest thing for humans to do. Don’t you wish for vengeance and long for punishment? Every time you see the faces of those who probably committed this atrocity of cowardice, doesn’t your heart wither with anger and hate? Mine does as well.

But hating America’s enemies doesn’t hurt them—it only hurts us. They don’t know our names, or care about our lives, much less our feelings. Hating them only poisons our souls and grieves our hearts.

And God promises to bring them to justice, to righteousness, to retribution. The Psalmist is clear: “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire” (v. 9). God will destroy all unrighteous people and nations, to the ends of the earth. There is no place to hide from his righteous anger and retribution. And no military power can stand against his.

The New Testament makes the same promise and asks of us the same commitment: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17-19, 21).

Run to God, refuse to fear, and with his help, release your hate.

And last, rest in faith (10).

“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth,” our Lord promises.

“Be still” means to be at rest, at calm, at peace. How is this possible in such a crisis as this? Scripture is clear: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). God can give us peace which understanding cannot produce. So long as we know that he is God, and trust in him.

Then our future is certain: “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” One day these days will be gone. One day there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and no more death or mourning or crying or pain. One day there will be no more sin or terror or war. On that day when there is no night, that joy when there is no pain, that victory where there is no defeat, that light where there is no darkness, that day when there is no night.

Until then, rest in faith. Listen to Luther: “That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth; The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth: Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.” Rest in faith.


So we say with the Psalmist, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 11). Make your choice today: run to God, refuse to fear, release your hate, rest in faith. And know that God is still on his throne. He was yesterday, he is today, and he will be forever.

Now we close in prayer for our nation, her leaders, her victims and those who care for them, and even for our enemies. We pray for ourselves in the crises we face personally. And we pray to the Lord Almighty who is with us, who is our fortress. Enter that fortress with me, right now.

First Things First

First Things First

Matthew 22:34-40

Dr. Jim Denison

Football season begins today. The best definition of football I’ve heard came from an English visitor’s first impression: 22 men in desperate need of rest, being watched by 70,000 people in desperate need of exercise.

And the math only gets worse. The NFL estimates that 100 million people watch by television some part of a football game on any given Sunday. Watching the 1,643 people who made NFL rosters this year. By my calculation, that’s a ratio of 60,864 fans per player. Watching every mistake, every penalty. Every fan sure he could do it better.

No wonder the coaches look that way on the sidelines. You’ve heard the old adage, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.” They believe it.

We can afford to be spectators in some areas of our lives. But not with our souls. You and I will each stand personally before the God of the universe one day, to give account for the years he gave us to live. There are only two questions on that final exam. Two commitments which give our lives purpose, significance, and joy; two commitments which give our eternity reward and delight. We’ll remember them and pledge ourselves to them anew in these weeks together.

Let’s begin where Jesus began, putting first things first: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (v. 37). We need to remember what worship is, what it isn’t, and why it matters so much to our God and to our souls.

What is worship?

Let’s understand first what worship is, as God sees it. It’s not what our culture thinks it is, or even what many church attenders think it is. We’ll see what it’s not in a moment—see what it is to God.

Worship is “love.” This is how the first commandment begins: “Love the Lord your God.” Love is a verb, not a noun or an adjective here. It requires doing, not just attending, watching, or believing in. You haven’t worshipped by attending church, listening to a sermon, singing hymns, or giving money. You’ve only worshipped when you’ve loved, adored, honored. Worship is love.

Worship is loving God: “Love the Lord your God.” Worship is about God, not us. It’s not about what we “get” from the hour, but what we give to God. You are not the audience, and we are not the performers. God is the audience of One, and you are the worship performers. Our job is to help you do your job, to be worship “coaches,” to lead you to love God today.

I am grateful for every scripture which stands over your heads as you worship God today. If I could add any words to our architecture, I would put over the doors as we enter to worship, this statement: “It’s not about us.” Worship is loving God.

And worship is loving God in every way a human can love.

With all our “hearts.” The word refers to our emotions, our senses. You need to feel love for God today.

With all our “souls.” The word means the life force itself, that which gives our bodies life, our very essence. Not as a peripheral matter but as your highest purpose and value today. You need to love God passionately today.

With all our “minds.” We are to have no ungodly thoughts, or songs, or movies, or television shows, or books in our minds. We are to think about our faith, to study God’s word, to engage intellectually in the worship of God.

This is every way a human can love: emotionally, passionately, intellectually. Is this your worship experience? Make it so today.

And make it so this week. Mark’s version adds that we are to love God with all our “strength” (Mark 12:30). This means to love God with our actions, when the worship hour is done. Nowhere does our text limit itself to church or Sunday worship. God measures our love for him not just by Sunday, but by Monday. By whether or not we love him tomorrow as we say we love him today. He’s looking for Monday Christians, Monday worshippers.

Did you know that you can love God in the same way you love anyone else who matters to you? You can spend the day with him—talking with him, thinking about him. Tell him how you feel, what you’re thinking. Thank him for the good things you experience, for “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). Ask him for what you need, and praise him for what he gives. Spend the day with Jesus. Love him. Worship him. This is his first commandment, his first expectation for your life and mine. For every day.

So we can identify what worship is not:

Performance—by me or by us. God has called us to help you worship God, but you are the performers. Don’t evaluate worship today by my performance, but by yours. That’s how God measures our worship today.

Entertainment. Worship is to be exciting and encouraging, but we are not in the entertainment business. We’re not here to impress you—you’re here to impress God.

Therapy. God helps us as we worship him, but our first purpose is to worship him. Interestingly, we get far more out of worship when we come not for us but for him. When we worship for his sake more than our own.

Evangelism. Evangelism results from worship, as people see Christ in our joy. But we don’t evaluate worship by how many public decisions get made at the front of the church. God evaluates it by how many hearts adore him all across the church.

About us. Remember INAM—it’s not about me. Write it over your heart every time you enter this place. Worship is about loving God. Every day.

Why does worship matter?

So why make such a deep and costly commitment as this? Why does God put this commandment first, for his sake but for ours as well? Why make this your first priority in life? For these reasons.

First, God made us for worship. This is why we were created. It’s why he gave us free will—so we could choose to worship him. Love must be a choice. God made us to make this choice.

The old Westminster Catechism was right: “man’s chief end is to worship the Lord and enjoy him forever.”

I read Henri Nouwen’s book, Making All Things New, this week. See if these words make sense to you as they do to me: “Beneath our worrying lives…something else is going on. While our minds and hearts are filled with many things, we wonder how we can live up to the expectations imposed upon us by ourselves and others. We have a deep sense of unfulfillment. While busy with and worried about many things, we seldom feel truly satisfied, at peace, or at home. A gnawing sense of being unfulfilled underlies our filled lives…To be bored, therefore, does not mean that we have nothing to do, but that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing.”

The only antidote to our bored, unfulfilled, restless souls is daily, personal worship and love for God. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in him.” He was right. God made us this way.

Second, God empowers us when we worship. When did God empower Isaiah to go for him, Daniel to face the lions, the first Christians to witness at Pentecost? When did God shake the doorposts in Jerusalem and the prison bars in Philippi? When did Jesus reveal his heavenly splendor to John and to us? In worship. The power to serve God is found in worshipping God.

If you want God’s power for your life and purpose, you must worship God every day. That’s how he empowers us.

Third, God uses us after we worship. After we love God we can love our neighbor. Calvin said, “It is impossible for the love of God to reign without producing brotherly kindness among men.” When we have met God, we can meet people in his name.

Last, God deserves our worship. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:10). He created and redeemed us, and made us a place in his perfect heaven forever. He watched his Son die on our cross, to save our souls and purchase our salvation. He gave everything for us. He deserves our worship.

Dr. W. L. Steiger was on a World War II ship in a submarine zone. Their ship was carrying 10,000 soldiers. One morning he and the captain were looking at the sunrise through their binoculars. Here is what he says happened next: “Suddenly each of us saw the white wake of a torpedo headed straight for our ship…We could not dodge it; we had no room or time to move our ship out of its path. The Captain turned to me, thinking of those boys still asleep in the ship, and said, ‘This is it!’

“There was no way out—this was the end. Then suddenly something happened which none on our ship had considered. There was a destroyer riding to our port, battling the waves. Suddenly the skipper of that small ship saw the same thing that we saw from our bridge—that torpedo headed straight for our midships. That young skipper shouted down the tube to his engine room, ‘All engines ahead flank!’ and headed his destroyer straight into the path of that torpedo. She took its full impact and sank in ten minutes with most of her officers and crew. He was my best friend, that young skipper. He knew when he gave that order that he and his crew would be lost, but he didn’t hesitate a single second.”

And Dr. Steiger has never forgotten that sacrifice. He told the story everywhere he could, to everyone he could. The story of the man who died for him.

That’s your story and mine today. Our Friend deserves our best worship.


So we’re going to give such worship to him, together. The finest single example of biblical worship is found in Isaiah 6. Here we find each of the elements of genuine, passionate love for God. We’ll do together what Isaiah did, and meet God as he met God.

First, “Isaiah saw the Lord.” How? The Scriptures say that we enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise (Psalm 100:4). See God on his throne in heavenly glory. Feel the warmth of his love for you. Hear the angels and the saints of the ages as they surround him with their praise. Lift your voice and your heart to him. Worship him with us today. You will meet God. And he will meet you.

The remainder of the service follows Isaiah 6: from adoration to confession, to cleansing, to surrender, to service. And finally we sing together, “All to Thee”. Make this your heart’s commitment to your loving Father, today. And tomorrow.

Making Holes in the Darkness

Making Holes in the Darkness

Acts 2:1-14

Dr. Jim Denison

Robert Louis Stevenson, then a child of six or seven years, was standing at his window one night watching the lamplighter at work. One by one, the lighter would light the streetlamps as he walked down the road. Young Stevenson watched with fascination. His nurse asked what he was doing. The little boy answered, “I am watching a man making holes in the darkness.” We need holes in the darkness today, don’t we?

Military action against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden is imminent, and the Taliban as well. This action may already be underway as we speak. Our troops may be in Afghanistan, a country which has never been successfully invaded before.

Such action causes many to worry about a military draft and the future for their children of such age.

The stock market has seen its most chaotic days since the Great Depression. Layoffs threaten the jobs of multiplied thousands of people in Dallas. Many of you wonder about your financial future and that of your family.

And the typical problems of life in these stressful days continue unabated. Marital tensions, family problems, health issues, school struggles. We need holes in the darkness.

The light we need is available to us. In fact, if you’re a believer, you already have all the power and help you need. What God’s Spirit did for the first Christians, he’s waiting to do for us. Come with me to the Upper Room, then we’ll make this place of worship our Upper Room today.

Receive God’s Spirit

Here’s the situation. Jesus’ followers number around 120, in a hostile world of 25 million. The very people who executed Jesus are now the enemies of his followers. What they did to him, they stand ready to do to them. Yet Jesus has charged them with reaching that hostile world in its entirety—all 25 million.

One third of the world today claims to follow Christ. .0006% of their world did.

If we were in their shoes, we’d be doing something. We’d be organizing strategies, starting ministries, doing all we can. They knew better.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place” (v. 1). Pentecost was the 50th day after the Passover Sabbath. Jews from around the world were crowded into Jerusalem for the religious holiday.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ church was crowded into a single room. Where and why? Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4). So, at the risk of their very lives, they met in an Upper Room of a Jerusalem house, where they prayed constantly for God’s protection and his Spirit’s power.

And God kept his promise (vs. 2-4). A violent wind filled the room, so they could hear the Spirit’s approach. Tongues of fire rested on them, so they could see his approach. And they were each “filled” with the Spirit of God—this means that their lives were surrendered completely to the Spirit’s purpose and power for them. The Holy Spirit took up residence in their souls and lives, and he never left.

This is how you and I received the Spirit—when we asked Christ into our lives, his Spirit moved into our souls. The Holy Spirit is God alive and at home in us, the Spirit of Christ in our hearts. As a result, these first believers began to “speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (v. 4).

This was the Spirit-empowered ability to speak in known languages they had not learned. This was not the ecstatic prayer and worship language known as “unknown tongues” in Corinthians and other places. These believers were simply given the ability to share their faith in the languages of the people who had come to Jerusalem from all across the world.

The text makes this clear: “Each one heard them speaking in his own language” (v. 6); “How is it that each of us hears them speaking in his own native language?” (v. 8); “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (v. 11).

By this gift, never repeated again in the New Testament, these believers were able to share their faith with the multitudes crowded into their city. If I were in Cuba and could suddenly preach in Spanish, this would be the same gift. The point is that God gave them the power they needed to fulfill their purpose.

Now Peter stands up to preach. The same Peter who had denied he knew Christ, who had fled from his cross in fear. Now the bold power and authority of the Spirit is his. So he preaches the gospel to the very crowds who had shouted for Jesus’ crucifixion and the very officials who had carried it out.

The result of the Spirit’s work through this first Christian sermon was dramatic: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” (v. 37). Peter called them to faith in Christ, 3,000 responded in faith, they were baptized, and the church was born.

All by the power of God’s Spirit at work in the lives of God’s people.

Have you done what Peter and these first Christians did? Have you asked Jesus Christ to take up residence in your life? Have you yielded yourself to his Spirit? If you have, you have the Spirit, the person, and the power of Almighty God himself alive in your life. You are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit lives in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Today.

Be assured of God’s love

Now, how does this fact relate to our lives, our problems, our fears and needs in these troubling days? First, it assures us of God’s love. The fact that God’s Spirit lives in us is his assurance of his love and grace. And we need that assurance.

Many are suggesting that the tragedy of September 11 is God’s punishment of America and even of the American church. My friends, when 7,000 people died on that day of infamy, God wept. The Creator of all the people who died grieved their death. God judges and punishes sin, but he doesn’t kill innocent people by the thousands to do it. We need to know in these days that God loves us, absolutely and unconditionally.

His Spirit’s presence in our lives is proof of this fact. Here’s how.

Over the years I’ve visited people in some harsh places. Impoverished villages in Mexico and Malaysia where basic amenities did not exist and circumstances were bleak. Impoverished homes in America where cockroaches were thick and a stench turned my stomach. I went only out of a sense of ministerial responsibility.

Those problems don’t compare to the cockroaches of rebellion and stench of sin God finds in my heart. And yet his Spirit chooses to live in my soul anyway. As proof of God’s unconditional compassion, grace, and love.

And his residence is permanent. Paul asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he lists the options: “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35). Here’s his answer: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vs. 37-39).

No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, no matter how hard or harsh things get, be assured of God’s indescribable, passionate love for you. His Spirit in your life is proof that it is so.

Access God’s power

In these fearful days we need assurance of God’s love, and we need to access his power and help. Worries about the future abound. For the first time in American history we have a cabinet position for Homeland Defense. For the first time we’re seeing news stories about intended responses to biological or chemical warfare against our country. We need the power and help of God.

We need what these first Christians found. They discovered that when the Holy Spirit moved into their lives, he brought supernatural strength and divine abilities they did not possess before. They could speak languages they had never learned; they could preach with boldness they did not possess; they could move crowds before whom they had cowered before. They found in God’s Spirit, God’s power.

Have you made this discovery yet? Do you know that you have all the power you need to overcome temptation, to withstand the stress and strain of these days, to live in abundant joy and purpose? Do you go to your Upper Room to meet with God every day? Do you turn to him for his help through the day? Or do you live on your own, as best you can? You can access the power of Almighty God. It is as close as your knees.

Samuel Chadwick was right: “The one concern of the Devil is to keep saints from praying. He fears nothing from prayerless studies, prayerless work, prayerless religion. He laughs at our toil and mocks at our wisdom, but he trembles when we pray.”

Because he knows that prayer is our access to the power of God by his Spirit in our lives. Do you know what he knows?


If Christ is your Lord, you have received his Spirit. You have the power of Almighty God alive and at work in your life. The Spirit is your assurance of God’s love and your access to his power.

Now, as you fight on the front lines of the spiritual war which is before us, will you make yourself available to the Spirit? Will you ask him to control you, empower you, use you? To make you his witness to frightened and hurting friends? To use you to share his love with lonely and hurting hearts? To pray for our leaders, our military, our people as we fight this spiritual war? To bring spiritual awakening to your part of our nation?

Today is the day to yield your life to the power of God’s Spirit. Today is the day to be ready for battle, enlisted for service, prepared to be used. Today.

Leon Trotsky was one of the foremost leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russian in 1917. Two years earlier he attended Sunday school in Chicago with a friend, but the teacher didn’t show up and Trotsky never went back.

Joseph Stalin, the force behind millions of deaths, was sent to study for the priesthood in the Russian Church, but the church had become so worldly and corrupt that he rebelled and turned to communism.

Mahatma Gandhi, leader of millions of Hindus in India, studied Christianity in England but rejected it because Christians didn’t live up to the teachings of Christ.

Lee Harvey Oswald attended a Baptist Sunday school as a child in Dallas, but the teacher told him not to come back until he was better dressed. He never did.

More people are open to spirituality than in a generation, right now. Christians have greater opportunity for ministry and witness than we have seen in 50 years. We are assured of God’s love, and given access to his power, by his Spirit alive in our hearts. Are you available to him today? Would you be?

Samuel Chadwick again: “Go back! Back to that upper room; back to your knees; back to searching of heart and habit, thought and life; back to the pleading, praying, waiting, till the Spirit of the Lord floods the soul with light, and you are endued with power from on high. Then go forth in the power of Pentecost, and the Christ-life shall be lived, and the words of Christ shall be done. You shall open blind eyes, cleanse foul hearts, break men’s fetters, and save men’s souls. In the power of the indwelling Spirit, miracles become the commonplace of daily living.”

Go to your Upper Room today, and you can make holes in the darkness tomorrow. The choice is yours.

This Is a Spiritual War

This Is a Spiritual War

Zechariah 4:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

America faces a war unlike any we have ever fought. This war is not for land, money, or power, though all will be involved. This war is not with a nation, though nations will be sorely affected. This conflict pits us against a spiritual opponent who fights for spiritual reasons. His aims and methods are spiritual in nature, and his irrational zeal is inspired by his spiritual fervor.

This is a spiritual war. We need spiritual help, the power of the Spirit himself. We have begun already to sense this, with more people crowding into more churches for prayer and worship than we have seen in a generation. We are right. We need the Spirit’s power for our lives, our future, our leaders, and our nation. Today I must show you why this is so, and how the Holy Spirit can empower each of us for the days ahead.

The spiritual enemy we face

First I must talk about the spiritual enemy we face. To no one’s surprise, on September 13 Secretary of State Colin Powell named Osama bin Laden as a prime suspect in Tuesday’s attacks. Who is he, and what does he want?

The US indicted him for masterminding the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; he has been connected to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1993 killing of American soldiers in Somalia, the mid-90’s bombings of US facilities in Saudi Arabia, and the 2000 attack on the US Cole.

Authorities have prevented his associates from launching attacks during the millennium celebrations, from bombing a dozen trans-Pacific flights in 1995, and from assassinating the pope and President Clinton in the Philippines.

So we know what he has done. Why does he do it?

Osama bin Laden is the most notorious leader of a strain of militant Islam that has been growing in the Muslim world for 30 years. Its fundamental belief is that the Muslim world is being poisoned and desecrated by “infidels.”

These “infidels” include both the US and Israel and governments of Muslim states such as Egypt and Jordan which have relationships with them.

These “infidels” must be driven out of the Muslim world by a jihad, the Arabic word for “struggle” often identified with holy war. Then strict Islamic rule must be established everywhere Muslims live. These extremists want to reestablish the golden age of Muslim domination which followed the death of Muhammad. The Taliban’s Afghanistan rule is their model for such a state.

Why has he attacked America?

Bin Laden is especially angry with the United States because of our military presence in Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis invited our troops to their defense after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, bin Laden and others were repulsed at this desecration of their holy land. And so he has bombed American military facilities in Saudi Arabia, and attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania eight years to the day after our first troops were dispatched to Saudi Arabia.

He is furious about our support for Israel, and cannot tolerate our alliances with moderate Arab governments in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (see David Plotz, “What Does Osama Bin Laden Want?” Slate, 9-13-01).

In brief, he wants to drive America out of Muslim nations, annihilate Israel, and establish the strictest Muslim rule over the Muslim world.

It is highly significant that most of that world has denounced both his aims and his tactics.

“Islam” means “peace” or “surrender” to Allah. It focuses upon the Koran as Allah’s revelation of himself to mankind through the prophet Mohammed.

Strict morality and obedience to the Koran, five daily prayers, almsgiving for the poor, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca characterize its basic tenets. Nowhere does the Koran link “holy” and “war.”

It is wrong to speak of bin Laden and his movement as Muslim, just as it is wrong to speak of David Koresh or Jim Jones or the KKK as Christian.

The enemy we now face is unlike any we have seen in military terms. Bin Laden’s organization, called al-Qaida (Arabic for “The Base”), has mobilized perhaps hundreds of cells across the nations affected by its strategies. These underground movements are very difficult to define and attack. While they have been supported by Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Algeria, Libya and Syria, among other nations, attacking these nations would not destroy the movement. Killing bin Laden would not by itself destroy the movement. This is why our president warns us that the war ahead will be long and hard.

And so we must have God’s power and God’s strength. We are facing a spiritual enemy, one which seeks not more money, power, or land, but spiritual goals through spiritual fervor. We are facing a military struggle which will require spiritual strength. The wonderful news is that this power is available to every one of us and to our nation, today.

The spiritual power God will give us

This is by no means the first time God’s people have been tested by their enemies. Let me take you to a place and time amazingly like our own, and offer you the help which gave that people the hope and victory they desperately needed.

The year is 538 B.C. Cyrus, king of Persia, has just conquered Babylon and freed the Jewish people to return from their Babylonian captivity to their homeland in Israel (Ezra 1:2-4; 6.3-5).

Led by Zerubbabel, about 50,000 Jews journeyed home and began work on their temple. Two years later they finished its foundations amid great celebration (Ezra 3:8-10).

But their success aroused the wrath of neighboring nations. These people didn’t want Israel back in the land at all, and feared their renewed spiritual and military power. They opposed this project vigorously, threatening the Jewish people with war and lying about them to the Persian government. For 14 years the temple’s foundations lay untouched, the nation fearful, their walls and city little more than rubble and ruins.

Then Zechariah stepped to the fore. Born in Babylon during the Jewish captivity there, he was among the first to return to Judah. Both prophet and priest, his name meant “the Lord remembers.” Through his ministry, the Lord showed that he did, indeed.

On the fateful evening of February 15, 519, God gave this prophet eight “night visions.” Each of them called the nation to faith in their God and promised them his presence, blessing, and power. Each of them rallied the people to courage and resolve, to strength amidst suffering and fear, to hope for the future and victory in the present.

The fifth of these visions was perhaps the most powerful of all. On Monday morning God led me clearly to make it his revelation to us for these days.

In this vision the angel of the Lord shows Zechariah a golden lampstand with a bowl on top and seven lights on it (v. 2).The bowl is filled with olive oil, the fuel for the lights or candles which are fed by its supply.

To each of the seven candles circling the bowl there are “channels.” The Hebrew seems to indicate that seven channels extend to each light, or 49 for the seven lights. Seven is the Hebrew number for completion and perfection. Perfect light, from perfect supply.

To complete the picture, two olive trees stand beside the bowl, one on each side (v. 3). These trees will produce olives continually, so that oil can constantly be supplied to the bowl, and from the bowl through its channels to its lights.

Who are these trees? The angel tells us: “These are the two who are anointed to serve the Lord of all the earth” (v. 14). These are Joshua the high priest (chapter 3) and Zerubbabel, the national leader (4:7, 9, 10).

What is this oil? Oil is a consistent biblical symbol for the Holy Spirit of God. Through this symbol God promises the power of that Spirit for this hour: “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).

What was the result of the Spirit’s power at work through the leaders and people of the nation? They began work on their temple and nation in earnest, despite the threats of their opponents. They dedicated their temple in 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15-18). They rebuilt their walls and their city. And most important of all, their nation returned to God in a great spiritual awakening unlike any they had ever known (Nehemiah 8-9).

The Holy Spirit gave God’s people God’s power for God’s will and God’s glory. He moved an entire nation to faith in himself and victory over their opponents. Now he stands ready to do the same again for us, and through us.


How can you and I have this power today? How can America? The key is verse 6: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

“Might” in the Hebrew means military force. “Power” means human strength. The Jews used both in their victory, but they were not the keys to that victory.

The key is the power of God. And he gives this power to humans through his Spirit. As the Sunday school lesson for today makes clear, God continually sends his Spirit “on” individuals in the Old Testament to empower them. Thus, Samson destroyed the Philippines; thus, Saul led Israel; thus, David slew Goliath. All by the Holy Spirit.

Now we who follow Christ have the Spirit “in” us permanently. The Holy Spirit is “Christ in you, the hope of glory “(Colossians 1:27). Jesus promised us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Paul knew his help: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). The apostle said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13)—the Holy Spirit.

How do we experience this power?

Receive the Spirit personally. Make Jesus Christ your Lord and Savior, and his Holy Spirit comes to live in your heart and life (Romans 8.9). As we’ll see next week, when we receive Christ we receive his Spirit.

Yield to the Spirit’s power. Ephesians 5:18 commands that we be “filled with the Spirit.” As we’ll see in two weeks, “filled” means to be yielded, controlled, submitted. God can only give his power to those who will yield to it. God cannot do for us what we try to do for ourselves. Only when we admit that we cannot face the uncertainty of these days, that we cannot handle the bitterness and anger and pain we all feel, that we need God’s Spirit to help us—only then can he. Yield to the Spirit’s control and you will have his power.

Obey the Spirit’s purpose. Jesus said that we would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). God’s power fulfills God’s purpose. Ask God to use your life to lead others to Christ, to give others strength and support, compassion and care. Ask God to use this horrific tragedy to bring our nation to himself. Ask him to use your life to bring others to him, and he will. Obey the Spirit’s purpose, and you will experience the Spirit’s power.

For many of you, September 11, 2001 feels much like December 7, 1941. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese Admiral Yamamoto said, “I fear that all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” He was right then, and now.

But this resolve must drive us to God. Billy Graham said it best: “In times like this, we realize how weak and inadequate we are, and our greatest need is to turn in repentance and faith to the God of all mercy and the Father of all comfort. If ever there was a time for us to turn to God and pray as a nation, it is now.”

The good news is that we can. We are fighting a spiritual war. But we can have the Spirit’s power and the Spirit’s victory. The choice is ours.

What is the Unpardonable Sin?

What is the Unpardonable Sin?

Matthew 12:30-32

Dr. Jim Denison

For three weeks during the presidential campaign of 1988, two California whales gained more global attention than candidates Bush and Dukakis. “Bonnett” and “Crossbeak,” as they were named by marine biologists, had become trapped in Alaska as an early winter iced them in. Eskimos were the first to notice their plight, and to try to help with chain saws and poles. The media publicized the problem. An Archimedean Screw Tractor was next on the scene, breaking up the ice between the whales and open water. But it was too slow, so the National Guard flew in two CH-54 Skycrane helicopters with five-ton concrete ice bashers. Next came a twenty-ton Soviet icebreaking ship, eleven stories tall. $1.5 million was spent to help two whales move sixty miles to open water and freedom.

What the world did for those whales, God has done for every one of us. And at even greater cost, giving his only Son to die on a tortured cross. To break through the sin which trapped us and lead us to abundant, overflowing, joy-filled eternal life.

Tragically, not everyone knows that story. Probably the most common single question I’ve been asked in 25 years of ministry is, “What is the unpardonable sin?” So many people are afraid that they or those they love have committed this sin.

So what is the “unpardonable sin?” What isn’t it? And why are the answers so important to us today?

What is this sin?

Let’s begin by understanding Jesus’ words on our subject.

Our Lord has healed a demon-possessed man, the crowds think he might be the Messiah, but the Pharisees say that he drives out demons by the devil himself.

So Jesus responds, “the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (v. 31). He repeats his warning: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (v. 32).

Peter could deny Jesus, Thomas could doubt him, and Paul could persecute his followers, yet they could be forgiven. But “blasphemy against the Spirit” cannot be forgiven, now or at any point in the future. This is the “unpardonable sin.”

So, what is this sin? Let’s set out what we know. We know that Christians cannot commit this sin. 1 John 1:9 is clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” “All” means all. No sin is unpardonable for a Christian.

We know that this sin relates to the work of the Holy Spirit in regard to unbelievers. Jesus is warning the Pharisees, those who rejected him, that they are in danger of this sin. So what does the Spirit do with non-Christians?

He convicts them of their sin and need for salvation (John 16:8-9).

He tells them about Christ their Savior (John 15:26).

He explains salvation (1 Corinthians 2:14).

When they confess their sins and turn to Christ, the Spirit makes them God’s children (Romans 8:9, 11).

In short, the Holy Spirit leads lost people to salvation.

So we know that it is the “unpardonable sin” to refuse this salvation. To be convicted of your sin and need for a savior, but refuse to admit it. To be presented the gospel but reject it.

Why is this sin unpardonable? Because accepting salvation through Christ is the only means by which our sins can be pardoned. It is “unpardonable” to reject the only surgery which can save your life, or the only chemotherapy which can cure your cancer. Not because the doctor doesn’t want to heal you, but because he cannot. You won’t let him. You have rejected the only means of health and salvation.

The unpardonable sin is rejecting the Holy Spirit’s offer of salvation, and dying in such a state of rejection. Then you have refused the only pardon God is able to give you. Don’t do that. Be sure you have made Christ your Lord, today.

What about suicide?

Now, this question inevitably raises a second and very difficult issue: what about suicide? So many people mistakenly believe that suicide is the unpardonable sin. What does the Bible teach about this tragic subject?

God’s word consistently warns us that suicide is always wrong. Deuteronomy 30:19 is God’s command, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Job knew that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, that life and death are with God and not us (Job 1:21). Paul teaches us, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And the sixth commandment is clear: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

God gives us life and he alone has the right to take it. It is always too soon to give up on life. God can always intervene, and often does. You’re not done until God says you’re done.

That said, why is suicide so often thought to be the “unpardonable sin?” Not because the Bible ever teaches this, for nowhere does God’s word make this connection. Here’s the story in brief.

Eventually the Church came to separate “mortal” from “venial” sins. “Mortal” sins would condemn a person to hell, “venial” to Purgatory. Only by confessing a mortal sin could a person avoid hell.

Murder, including self-murder, was one of these mortal sins. And of course a person could not confess this sin after committing it.

So, by logic, suicide was defined as the unpardonable sin. But nowhere does the Bible teach that this is so.

Suicide is always wrong, always a sin, and always a tragedy. It places far more grief and pain on family and friends than life would have. It takes into human hands a decision which is God’s alone. It leads to judgment and loss of reward by God in eternity. But it is not the unpardonable sin. Those you care about who committed this sin are not in hell for having done so. Rejecting Christ is the unpardonable sin, and the only one.

Why do we doubt our salvation?

So don’t doubt your salvation, if you’ve trusted in Christ. You cannot commit the “unpardonable sin,” no matter what else you’ve done. And yet so many of us worry and wonder about the security of our salvation.

Why do we?

We don’t always “feel” saved. But nowhere does the Bible say how it feels to be a Christian. My sons are my sons even when they don’t feel like it, because they were born that way. A Christian has been “born again” as God’s child. Whether you feel like it today or not.

We still sin, and think that we may not be saved. But 1 John 1:8 teaches, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” The bumper sticker is right: “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

We have doubts and questions about our faith. But Jesus on the cross could cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). It takes as much faith to believe you’re saved as it did to accept your salvation. You still haven’t seen God or proven him beyond question. Doubts are normal. As we saw in a recent message, we can take them to God’s word and God’s Son, and find the help we need.

And some of us don’t know all the Bible promises about our salvation through God’s grace.

In verse 31 Jesus speaks of being “forgiven” by God. The Greek word means to remove the sin from the sinner, to free him or her from it. It literally means “to liberate,” as in freeing a prisoner to leave the prison and live a new life. What the icebreaking ships did for the whales, God has done for us. And the ice prison is left behind, by the grace of God.

Grace is why Psalm 103:3 tells us that God forgives “all” our sins. It’s why verse 12 promises that he separates our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. It’s why Micah 7:19 assures us that he buries our sins in the depths of the sea. It’s why Isaiah 43:25 tells us that God remembers these sins no more. All by grace.

Grace is why Jesus tells us that “whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). It’s why he says of his followers, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” (John 10:28). It’s why he says at the grave of Lazarus, “He who believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26). It’s why Paul rejoices to say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). All by God’s grace.

Paul knew that grace personally. The greatest persecutor of the church became its greatest apostle, by God’s grace. And so in every letter Paul wrote, “grace” appears no later than the second sentence. As Frederick Buechner says, “Grace is the best Paul can wish them because grace is the best he himself ever received.”


Have you received that grace? Do you know that you have asked Jesus to forgive your sins and become your Savior and Lord? If you’re not sure and you reject this invitation to trust in him, you reject your only means of grace and salvation. And if this is your last chance, as it may be, your sin is unpardonable. If a thought in your mind says you can wait, know that it’s a lie from your enemy. Every soul in hell for rejecting Christ thought he or she would have another chance.

If you know you have made Christ your Savior, be as burdened as God is for those you know who have not. Their rejection of Jesus must change or it will be unpardonable. You have been forgiven by God’s grace. Will you pray by name for those who have not? Will you do all you can to see that they experience the same grace?

And will you thank God for that grace today?

In his book, A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World, Ron Lee Davis tells the true story of a priest in the Philippines, a much-loved man of God who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years before. Though he had confessed and repented of that sin, he still had no peace, no assurance of God’s forgiveness.

In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ and he with her. The priest was skeptical. To test her he said, “The next time you speak with Jesus, ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary.” She agreed to do so.

A few days later he asked her, “Did Christ visit you in your dreams?” “Yes, he did,” she replied. “And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?” “Yes.” “Well, what did he say?” “He said, ‘I don’t remember.'”

Thanks be to God.