Archive for February, 2019

The internet is filled with arguing, debate and “discussion”. Whether on Twitter, in a Facebook group or the comments on a blog piece or article, there you find it and it often degenerates into a dumpster fire.

I can often be discouraged by that, particularly when it occurs among pastors and elders. I expect worldly people to act like a dumpster fire. I understand that as a sinner, I am seconds away from starting dumpster fires. But I also grasp something of the grace of God, the love for the saints and other safety nets to keep me from stumbling and hopefully not put a stumbling block before others. It is a process, and part of my sanctification (becoming more like Jesus).

In one of his letters (Works, Vol. 1 pp. 252-257), John Newton discusses candor (or candour for the Brits) in a way that I thought helpful in processing some of the debates I have been a part of in the last year or so.

Candor- noun

  1. the state or quality of being frank, open, and sincere in speech or expression; candidness: The candor of the speech impressed the audience.
  2. freedom from bias; fairness; impartiality: to consider an issue with candor. (Dictionary.com)
He recognizes both true and counterfeit candor or open, sincere speech. He asserts that “true candor is a Christian grace, and will grow in no soul but a believing heart.” As a grace, it is a fruit of the Spirit, not our own effort though we are also responsible to seek such candor. If you are a Christian, especially an elder or pastor, you should be marked by increasing candor.
I see some claiming candor, though they don’t use the word, though they don’t seem to know what it means. I’ll get back to this later.
This true candor which is a Christian grace is like this:
“It forms the most favorable judgment of persons and characters, and puts the kindest construction upon the conduct of others that it possibly can, consistent with a love of the truth. It makes due allowances for the infirmities of human nature, will not listen with pleasure to what is said to the disadvantage of any, nor repeat it without a justifiable cause.”
This gives me some hope as I’ve seen signs of growth in me. Newton sounds like he’s talking about charity or love. He’s not. He’s talking about speaking the truth in love rather than divorced from love. “Open rebuke” is often claimed to say the most unloving things to others.
Why do I, as I have been accused by others, “make excuses” for others? I try to form the most favorable judgment of them, unless they prove otherwise (by repeatedly berating or accusing others, as an example). Love should move us to see the best, not the worst, in our brothers. This is most important when information is lacking, when we don’t have the whole picture. What do you fill that in with- the worst you could imagine your brother doing, or the best? Are we being charitable or giving way to the inner Pharisee who loves to condemn all who dare differ from us?
This is to be consistent with a love of the truth. We don’t sweep facts under the rug. It is about seeing facts in context, and allowing the person to speak for themselves. Newton is not wanting us to avoid accusation of sin, but to be clear that what we are calling sin is actually sin, and they are actually committing it.
We also make proper allowances for human frailty. We don’t expect people to be perfect, nor express everything perfectly. I sometimes get frustrated with CavWife because she doesn’t express things the way I would, and then I misunderstand her. We talk about that, about how we can communicate more clearly. But I don’t accuse her of being a liar! (Or a liberal/progressive/fundamentalist/Pharisee, poopy head, idiot, jerk etc.)That starts a dumpster fire.
Recently we had one of these discussions, and a child asked if we were getting a divorce (likely because some extended family is, not because this is an everyday event). My reply was that this was so we didn’t divorce, but talked through our issues. And we do it without name-calling. But I digress.
To use today’s jargon, this is a gospel-driven (or centered) candor. Newton wants to derive such candor from the gospel. He recognizes the power of sin even in the best of us.
“There is an unhappy propensity, even in good men, to a selfish, narrow, censorious turn of mind; and the best are more under the power of prejudice than they are aware.”
Yes, even the best of us have prejudices or blind spots. We will deny it, but sometimes the charge is true. Some men get particularly exercised over certain subjects. So exercised that they are unreasonable and express themselves with great flair, as one friend noted recently.
Newton continues to describe what this gospel-centered candor looks like.
“A truly candid person will acknowledge what is right and excellent in those from whom he may be obliged to differ: he will not charge the faults or extravagances of a few upon a whole party or denomination: if he thinks it is his duty to point out or refute the errors of any persons, he will not impute to them such consequences of their tenets as they expressly disavow; he will not willfully misrepresent or aggravate their mistakes, or make them offenders for a word: he will keep in view the distinction between those things which are fundamental and essential to the Christian life, and those concerning which a difference of sentiment may and often has obtained among true believers.”
In controversy, we often ignore the common ground. Perhaps we assume it, but based on the accusations I often see flying about we aren’t. We are ignoring the common ground and focusing on the points of supposed disagreement as though that was all that mattered. Then we begin to accuse people of ideas and actions they haven’t thought or committed.
Too often the actions of a few are imputed to the “whole”. For example, a conference like Revoice means that the PCA is turning into the PC(USA), a group of compromising people one step away from liberalism. That’s the stuff I push back against but, frankly, it isn’t true.
True candor doesn’t put words in other people’s mouth, and it accepts what people say. The issue of identity was huge in the Revoice dumpster fire. I found a stubborn refusal by many to accept what they meant by key phrases on the controversy, and a stubborn demand that others use “my terminology”. Candor can say, “not the way I’d put it, but I can understand what you are trying to say.” It doesn’t burn down the house over a word or phrase someone knowingly uses differently.
True candor also recognizes that good Christians disagree on things not essential to the Christian life. Scripture is not equally clear on all issues. There are some disagreements (many?) that don’t strike at the vitals of Christianity. As a result, we shouldn’t draw lines in the sand over them. Acknowledge you disagree, be honest about that, but don’t make the other person into a damnable heretic as a result. They aren’t Servetus just because you disagree with them on a finer, less clear point.
Newton provides us with another remind that should dampen our desire to set the dumpster on fire.
“Let us, my friend, be candid: let us remember who totally ignorant we ourselves once were, how often we have changed sentiments in one particular or other, since we first engaged in the search of truth; how often we have been imposed upon by appearances; ….”
Remember that you grew into your positions, and they may need time to grow into them as well. I don’t get angry because my 8 year-old can’t do algebra yet. While, for instance, all elders have the same office, they don’t have the same maturity and experience. While God may want to use you to help them grow, accusations, name-calling etc. is not how He intends that to happen. Can you imagine how the conversation with Apollos would have gone if Priscilla and Aquila started with “Apollos, you ignorant mimbo…”? A different, better conversation is “I think you are right here, and have some qualms about these things.”
Newton does warn against false candor, which “springs from an indifference to the truth, and is governed by the fear of men and the love of praise.” Make sure there is an indifference to the truth rather than a greater emphasis on one truth than you put. I’ve heard such accusations about the fear of men that wasn’t necessarily true. For instance, when I joined in repenting of our denomination’s past racism, it wasn’t because I was afraid of others or I was virtue signalling. I believed it was the right, biblical way to deal with our history even if I wasn’t a part of it (I’ve only been here 10 years). I chose a path of reconciliation. So, I think candor doesn’t assume motives and accuse but asks about them.
True candor doesn’t divorce itself from truth or minimize truth. It grapples with truth, and sometimes that can be hard to do in our world in light of our human limitations and sinfulness.
“Far be that candor from us which represents the Scripture as a nose of wax, so that a person may reject or elude the testimonies there given to the Deity and atonement of Christ, and the all-powerful agency of the Holy Spirit, with impunity.”
To be Christian candor is to maintain essential Christian doctrines. In the context of the letter, he affirms the gifts of non-Christians in their areas of expertise (doctors, lawyers, engineers etc.) without commending them in theology. So, we see here another boundary placed upon true candor. It recognizes the limitations of others, as well as their strengths.
“Then the strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and believers would receive each other without doubtful disputation.”
There are strong and weak brothers. Mature and immature brothers. The strong and mature should bear with, rather than condemn, the weak and immature. Far too often we doubt another’s relation to Christ because they don’t align with our theology or method of ministry perfectly. We play the role of judge which is reserved for God. I’m not saying you can’t disagree, or express that disagreement and say something is wrong. What I’m saying is that our tendency to declare someone who holds to basic Christian tenets and evidences grace to not be a Christian because we disagree.
True candor doesn’t just happen. Newton ends this letter with this recognition.
“… we ought to cultivate a candid spirit, and learn from the experience of our own weakness, to be gentle and tender to other; avoiding at the same time that indifference and cowardice, which, under the name of candor, countenances error, extenuates sin, and derogates from the authority of Scripture.”
Discernment and candor are not simply about recognizing what is wrong, but also about recognizing what is right. The people we interact with have both right and wrong ideas. I am not 100% right and they 100% wrong. When we act like that, we start dumpster fires and destroy relationships with people who are our brothers. May God help us to learn how to disagree with one another so that we grow together, before it is too late.

Read Full Post »

I’m reading The Works of John Newton this year. In volume one there are letters on various subjects. One was On Hearing Sermons. I thought there were some aspects of this letter that were particularly pertinent in our day.

Hearing the gospel is no small thing. He notes it is “a great privilege” which “requires grace and wisdom to make a due improvement of it.” It is another way of reminding us that God will expect much where much has been given. The sermons we hear are given to us as gifts and we should be grateful for them, as well as make the best use of them. However, like all blessings there are also snares that present themselves.

Newton notes the differences in preachers:

“Some are more set especially for the establishment and confirmation of the gospel doctrines; others are skillful in solving casuistical points; others are more excellent in enforcing practical godliness; and others again, having been led through depths of temptation and spiritual distress, are best acquainted with the various workings of the heart, and know best how to speak a word in season to weary and exercised souls.”

Image result for preachingA group of pastors may all be “exegetical” and expositional but preach very different sermons based on their particular strengths. We cannot expect all sermons to be all things to all men. Recall the limitations of your pastor (or any pastor) and rejoice in how God has gifted them rather than cursing him for how God has not.

Churches also have different needs in preaching. A pastor whose preaching is well-received at Faith Presbyterian may not find as warm a reception at Trinity Presbyterian. One may like his doctrinally driven sermons while another longs for and needs practical godliness. When looking for a new pastor, this should be at the forefront of a search committee’s thinking. “What are we used to? Do we need something different now? What are this man’s strengths?” A congregation may appreciate the individual sermons of a candidate, but will they appreciate a steady diet of it?

In a similar fashion, when the pastor is on vacation it is a great time to hear someone with a very different style or strength. Do not compare them to your pastor, but appreciate what the person brings to the table. Likewise, don’t move from that to the criticism of your pastor since he’s not this guy you just heard for a week or two. What is a refreshing change of pace may not be a brand new course.

Newton encourages a stated and regular attendance. There may be occasions to attend elsewhere, but something goes amiss when you are looking for reasons. It may be about them, but perhaps you should start with you.

Regular attendance helps the pastor to know you and your circumstances. I know that I try to consider my congregation when planning sermon series, and thinking about illustrations. I chose one recently precisely because of the emotional freight it would have in light of the very emotional nature of the sermon text. I didn’t want an illustration that was remote by time or geography but one that moved them into the experience of the author’s historical situation.

It also encourages the pastor. Pastors understand if you are sick or on vacation. Most of us, particularly those in smaller churches, are discouraged by people who are frequently absent. We’re human too.

Newton addresses those who are “unsettled”, who always seem to be looking for a new church or better preacher. I’ve known some of these folks, and the poor spouses who suffer from the constant change like plants that are regularly uprooted and moved.

“Such unsettled hearers seldom thrive: they usually grow wise in their own conceits, have their heads filled with notions, acquire a dry, critical, and censorious spirit; and are more intent on disputing who is the best preacher, than upon obtaining benefit to themselves from what they hear.”

You can fix your hopes on the man whether that man is your pastor or someone else. We must remember that what matters most is the work of the Spirit with, without, above and in spite of the man in the pulpit. The Lord must bless the sermon. Finding the perfect preacher is not our concern, but often a way to avoid what God is doing through a man.

Newton admits that other opportunities present themselves (besides Sunday morning) to hear another pastor preach. We can partake of these opportunities, and these have multiplied thanks to the internet. But he offers some warnings lest we not make good use of them.

Image result for listening to sermonDo not become a mere hearer, focused on delivery and not content. As a pastor I periodically listen to other pastors. I do want to hear other styles and improve my craft, but I also need to be fed, encouraged or challenged by the sermon. It isn’t simply research but an opportunity for God to deal with me.

Some seem focused on hearing, not applying the message they hear. They become professional or expert hearers of sermons, analyzing the craft or method. They aren’t listening to become shaped by God’s grace.

Similarly, don’t become a mere hearer by listening to too many sermons. The goal is worship and life transformation. When they become background noise and/or too numerous to process we become mere hearers. The blessing of the internet’s cache of sermons by gifted men becomes a curse.

Do not let your itching ears be tickled. Don’t look for novelty or singular opinions. If no one else is talking about the subject or has that interpretation, it isn’t a good sign. The more people who listen to the idiosyncratic preacher the more the poison of error may spread. Sadly, it is easy for people to be wowed by heretics. There is no meat, only bones, but those bones are sure presented well.

Newton continues with addressing those times when you believe that a sermon doesn’t satisfy you. He advises that we not lay all of the blame on the pastor. They are limited in terms of gifting and time to prepare (perhaps it was a week filled with crisis), and their work is difficult. They can be burdened by discouragement (they don’t preach in a vacuum). As a result, Newton is not trying to exempt them from any responsibility, but he does ask them to “consider whether the fault may not possibly be in you.” What are you bringing to the table that day which may make it difficult for you to listen to and benefit from the sermon that has been providentially preached? Do you think too highly of him, and expect too much? “Perhaps you neglected to pray for him; and then, though he might be useful to others, it is not at all strange that he was not so to you.” Don’t assume the problem was with the pastor.

He concludes with the fact that you should test what the pastor says with the Scriptures. It is your duty to follow the example of the Bereans. Most pastors don’t expect blind acceptance and obedience. That would be spiritually unhealthy.

“They would not be lords over your conscience, but helpers of your joy. Prize this gospel liberty, which sets you free from the doctrines and commandments of men; but do not abuse it to the purposes of pride and self.”

Preaching is an odd thing. People can hear the opposite of what we intend. Two people can hear the opposite message. Years ago I preached a sermon that included a rebuke of racism. A visitor “heard” me as though I was a racist and encouraging racism. I don’t know how that happened. I once heard an excellent sermon by Steve Brown at a Ligonier conference focused on the sufficiency of Christ’s work for our salvation and people heard this as antinomianism. Hmm, do you think we can do anything to add to or take away from the cross of Christ for our salvation?! We listen as sinful people in need of grace to rightly apprehend the message of the pastor. Sin affects the delivery and the hearing. What is a means of grace can be twisted by the flesh and the devil to be a curse.

Let us, therefore, be prayerful in attending to preaching. Pray for the pastor as he prepares and for his delivery that his sermon would humble the sinner, exalt the Savior and promote godliness (Charles Simeon’s three guidelines), and that the people would be granted grace to properly understand and love the truth found therein, while recognizing and forgiving the errors (unless they be damnable heresies or consistent errors).

Read Full Post »

I don’t every year, but last year I read a devotional in addition to my daily reading of Scripture. I can struggle with legalism or formality regarding a devotional. But that’s my problem.

There was a sale on God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Timothy and Kathy Keller. The book focuses primarily on the Proverbs, but there are some days with readings from Job or Ecclesiastes.

Writing a book on Proverbs, like preaching on it, is perilous and likely frustrating. After the introduction, the proverbs are not structured. You can’t simply roll thru them sequentially and expect it to make a whole lot of sense. You are essentially forced to handling them thematically. They laid them out this way:

Knowing Wisdom (January 1- February 7)

Knowing God (February 8- March 23)

Knowing the Heart (March 24- June 12): this included topics like reordering our desires, understanding temptation and emotions.

Knowing Others (June 13- August 10): this included topics like friendship, gossip, listening and conflicts.

Knowing the Times and Seasons (August 11- September 3): this covered guidance, planning and decision making.

Knowing the Spheres (September 4- December 14): covering marriage, sex, parenting, work, power and justice.

Knowing Jesus, the True Wisdom of God (December 15- December 31)

Unlike his devotional on the Psalms, which I’m reading now, this one pretty much uses up the whole page for the day. It isn’t a big page, so it doesn’t cover the material in an exhaustive fashion. But there is just enough to get you thinking while having a few nuggets to hang onto.

I found that often, in the providence of God, I needed to hear what he had to say that day. It coincided well with my needs in a way neither of us could anticipate. This was a helpful devotional, applying doctrine in pertinent ways.

I should have included it in my best reads of 2018. If you can find a copy (I can no longer find it on the WTS Bookstore site, but did on Amazon), I’d recommend buying it and planning on reading it next year. It is not burdensome, nor trite. It is thoughtful and gospel-oriented.


Read Full Post »

Habakkuk is not a minor prophet who gets much attention. It is a book that is difficult to read since you have little hope there as he complains to God and the answer is not quite to his liking.

ItNo photo description available. just doesn’t “preach” in our day of itching ears, prosperity and easy living.

This week I begin a sermon series on Habakkuk. As you begin you aren’t sure if the resources will be worth your while. You aren’t sure if you are going to get helpful perspectives and cover historical, exegetical, and practical issues well enough to prepare you to bring the Word to God’s people. Only time will tell if I refresh weary souls.

Calvin’s Commentary on Habakkuk is my interaction with the historic community. I try to pick at least one older commentary. We shouldn’t ignore how it was interpreted in the past. We stand on their shoulders rather than figure out everything from scratch. You generally can’t go wrong with Calvin.

D. I’ve got O. Palmer Robertson’s volume in the New International Commentary of the Old Testament series covering Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah. This is my more technical commentary for Habakkuk. Robertson is a capable scholar, so I feel like I’m in good hands as I seek to tackle any of those more technical questions.

Similar to that is Walter Kaiser’s volume, Micah -Malachi, in The Communicator’s Commentary Series. It should focus a bit more on how to preach it. We’ll see.

I read some good reviews on Habakkuk by Heath Thomas, part of the Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary series. This is also more to the exegetical/technical side of things. It offers to bridge the gap between biblical and systematic theology.

John Currid often provides lots of archeological & historical background in his commentaries. As a result, I picked up his volume Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet. It is not very thick, but I expect to get some good nuggets from it.

Even shorter is D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ (I’ll never say it the same after watching the Lego Ninjago Movie with the kids) From Fear to Faith: Studies in the Book of Habakkuk and the Problem of History. The cover is pretty ugly with a rocket launcher and some B-movie monster (okay, actually a statue of some ancient idol that looks like a B-movie monster). Go figure. Maybe in addition to watching wrestling with the grandkids he watched monster movies.

Read Full Post »