Lessons for Christians from Joe Paterno

[This is the document I passed out in our Sunday School. I have added to it to make it clearer for the reader. It is to be used in conjunction with the lesson I have in the Sunday School hour. The audio of the lesson can be found http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=1114111144442]

1Cor. 10:12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

We have all heard about what happened to Joe Paterno, the coach of Penn State for 46 years. I am neither a Penn State fan nor a devotee of football. In fact I know very little of college football and rarely watch it these days.

I also do not presume to know all the facts or details of this heinous situation. It is neither edifying to rehearse the details of this wicked crime nor prudent. Enough is known to compel us to be circumspect.

Three things compelled me to pursue this study. 1) A caller on the radio noted how Joe Paterno be remembered — no longer as a great honorable coach but one who mishandled this situation very badly. 2) A dear brother in Christ said to me that these events were sobering. 3) I happened to be reading a selection from John Newton again that dovetailed with these events. I thought it necessary as a pastor to strike while the iron is hot.

For all I know, Joe Paterno may emerge as a hero — I don’t know and it doesn’t matter but there are definitely three things (at least) we can draw from this grievous situation. I have not heard if Paterno is a Christian or not but allow me to use his life as a metaphor for our spiritual pilgrimage, the pilgrim’s progress. I want to meditate on four lessons we could learn from this.

1. We need the Lord’s grace to see things with moral clarity.

If Joe Paterno were able to do it again, he would have acted differently knowing what he knows now. To see things clearly from a spiritual moral perspective is an act of God’s grace; we must beseech Him for wisdom so that we will not fall into sin. We make myriads of decisions in our lives and many of them chosen unwisely may be our undoing later on. Let us earnestly beseech the Lord to keep us, to fill us with wisdom, to enlighten our hearts and imprint upon our souls the gravity of the moment.

2. We need the Lord’s grace to run well unto the end. It’s not over til it’s over! Remember Peter, David, & Solomon.

All of us have the race before us. Some of us will reach the celestial city much earlier than the rest. Either way, we must run to the end. None of us can presume that we will make it to the end with ease. Joe Paterno almost ended his distinguished career with distinction but now his entire life and all his achievements have been sullied. O to make it unto the end without dishonoring our dear master! May He give us the grace to run well and to the end.

3. We must recognize how quickly man’s glory fades.

This football legend, had he ended well, would still have been forgotten. Eventually, all our exploits and glory done for self and this world will come to naught. Only what is done for Christ will last.

4. We must remember that our glory can turn to dishonor in a flash. The Lord must hold us up or we will perish.

One mistake, one act of indiscretion, etc. can overturn our reputation, our wealth, our health, etc. We are in the Lord’s hands at all times but let us not presume that we can flirt with sin and lesser things and assume all will be well. May the Lord keep us and may we by His grace and mercy humbly and safely cling to Him! O to cling evermore to Him who loved us and gave Himself up for us!

How quickly our lives change. In looking up a few bits of information regarding Joe Paterno, I ran across this clip on a site. I’ve never heard of him before but the news blurb aptly illustrates how quickly our lives and fortunes can change.

Once-richest Irishman declared bankrupt

Sean Quinn, three years ago listed as Ireland’s richest man, has been declared bankrupt in a Northern Ireland court over alleged debts of €2.8bn to the Irish state-owned lender Anglo Irish Bank.

The 64-year old businessman’s insurance, cement and property empire collapsed last year following a multibillion euro stock market gamble on the share price of Anglo, which was nationalised during Ireland’s banking crisis.


John Newton and the Lord our Keeper

In a letter to young John Ryland, Newton refers to his sense of inner corruption and weakness. Earlier, he confess, “It is a mercy that I have not been surprised and overwhelmed long ago: without help from on high it would soon be over with me.” (p. 88)

One trial however abides with me; a body of sin and death, an inward principle of evil, which renders all I do defective and defiled. But even here I find cause for thankfulness, for with such a heat as I have, my sad story would soon be much worse, if the Lord were not my keeper. By this I may know that he favours me, since weak and variable as I am in myself, and powerful and numerous as my enemies are, they have not yet prevailed against me. And I am admitted to a throne of grace, I have an advocate with the Father. And such is the power, care and compassion of my great Shepherd that, prone as I am to wander, he keeps me from wandering quite away. When I am wounded he heals me; when I faint, he revives me again.[1]

Newton recognized how easily he could have fallen. He attributes his continued state of grace to God’s mercy. True believers feel the plague of their hearts and are surprised that they have not been undone by their sins. Newton’s humbly admits that the Lord had kept him; if the Lord were not our keeper, we would all fall. What happened to Paterno and those related to this incident could easily affect us — “It is a mercy that I have not been surprised and overwhelmed…”


Edward Reynolds and His Meditations on Peter’s Fall

Another extract that helps us on this matter of Joe Paterno is from Edward Reynolds (a Westminster Divine). He penned thirty short meditations on Peter’s fall and rise. This is taken from his third Meditation. Written in old English, it may be difficult for readers to follow so let me summarize the main point and then you can meditate on this paragraph. He says that we can never assume that we will never fall. If we are true believers, we will indeed make it to heaven but there is no promise that we will never fall into temptation. Reynolds’s words are sobering because he reminds us that all our resolutions (like Peter’s protest and promise) are worthless unless our Lord gives us grace to keep them for His glory.

Vows and promises unconditionally addressed, cannot but prove dangerous to the strongest faith. God must first give us perseverance, before we can promise it; it is not in our power, though it be our duty to perform it. Though Peter may, in the virtue of Christ’s promise, be sure not to fall into hell, he cannot, in the virtue of his own promise, be sure not to fall into temptation: though he can be secure that faith shall have the last victory; yet he cannot, that it shall have every victory: though it cannot die and be finally dried up, yet it may ebb and languish; and though even now it can look undauntedly on the nails of a cross, yet presently it may be affrighted at the voice of a maid. He only that hath given faith unto us, can give life and action unto our faith… Lord! let me never barely promise, but let me withal pray unto thee; and let ever my purpose to die for thee, be seconded with a supplication that I may not deny thee; whenever I have an arm of confidence to lift up in defence of thy truth, let me have a knee of humility to bow down before thy throne: Lord, give me what I may promise; and I will promise what thou requirest. (Works, 3:11)

[1] John Newton, Wise Counsel – John Newton’s Letters to John Ryland Jr., ed. Grant Gordon (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 170. Newton has made similar confessions earlier on, see pp. 88, 145.

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