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Posts Tagged ‘George Whitefield’


In 1980, Sinclair Ferguson published Add to Your Faith. In 1981 this was republished in the U.S. under the title Taking Your Faith Seriously. In his introduction to Maturity: Growing Up and Going On in the Christian Life, he calls it a “young man’s book.” As a result, Maturity is not simply an old book with a new title, but a re-working of the old book to reflect his greater understanding and wisdom 40 years later. Having not read the original version of this book, I am not qualified to compare the two volumes. I will, however, say this is a much-needed and excellent book.

Similar to Devoted to God, Ferguson notes that he prefers passages to proof-texts as his method. In Devotion, he used a passage that illustrates one of the illustrates an aspect of sanctification. This book is not structured that way, but as he approaches aspects of Christian maturity he looks a themes in books, focusing on a few passages instead of exegeting one passage. The 12 chapters are organized into 5 sections: Growing Up, Standing Firm, Facing Difficulties, Pressing On and Maturity.

In the first section, Growing Up, Ferguson tackles the topics of the Importance of Maturity, the Symptoms of Decay and Abiding in Christ. As indicated by the final chapter in this section, there is a strong emphasis on union & fellowship with Christ as essential to growing up in Christ. We are getting a bit ahead of ourselves in this matter. Maturity does take time and effort (an effort born of that mystical union with Christ, not an effort of the flesh). He begins with some of the hindrances of maturity including contemporary society, our personal history, “Christian” influences that don’t value maturity or communicate the process. Discipleship is not about quick returns, but delayed gratification. We are setting our hopes on God’s promises relating to the future which are often fulfilled when we see the Lord either thru death or His return. They are not all about the present or immediate future.

Ferguson points us to Jesus who also grew into maturity (Luke 2:42). He’s not simply our example, but the source of the resources necessary through the aforementioned union. As man, he was a real man who grew in wisdom and stature. He was a boy as a child, not a man in a boy’s body. Ferguson then surveys a number of epistles to show the importance and need of maturity. We see the great importance of love, and our need to hear the Word preached if we are to become mature.

“The disease diagnosed here is a failure in concentration, an inability to fix the heart and mind on Christ and to make him the chief object of devotion and attention.”

Decay is indicated by attention deficit, the inability to concentrate on spiritual matters. We become governed by our desires instead of the will of God. He also notes a poor appetite as a symptom of decay. This of course is about whether we are feasting on the Word or the world and its delights. One of these will shaping our thinking, desires/values and will/choices. When we are not chewing on Scripture, we begin to be conformed to the world instead of transformed by the renewing of our minds.

“Secret failure cannot remain hidden. If we do not deal with our indwelling sin, it will eventually catch up with us. We may disguise it for a while, but we will lack the perseverance to do so permanently; one day our spiritual failure will become clear.”

Another symptom is a lack of discernment, the inability to spot the problems in a teacher’s doctrine or practice. This doesn’t mean we should all be discernment bloggers, but that we do practice discernment: affirming what is good while rejecting what is bad. It is a rejection of man-made rules, and a dependence upon the grace of God. Weakness of worship is another sign of decay. We look for the pep rally instead of worshiping the exalted Christ who suffered for us, and calls us to suffering.

The third chapter in this section focuses on John 15 and the parable of the vine. We are branches that are grafted in, and this provides a picture of life-giving union with Jesus. The Father prunes us for greater fruitfulness thru providences and interventions. He begins to remove that which is unhelpful for our spiritual life and maturity, as well as shaping and molding us. Abiding with Christ is connected to having His Word dwell in you richly. He returns to the subject of feasting and chewing on the Scripture to gain nurturing truth.

“We need to learn to see our lives within his purposes and plans, not to think of him as fitting into ours!”

Standing Firm focuses on assurance and guidance. Moving toward maturity requires that we are assured of our salvation, and receive proper guidance from God. Otherwise we flounder wondering if we are saved and what we should do with our selves. He develops the idea, as he did in The Whole Christ, of faith as a direct activity and assurance as a reflex activity of faith. To we saved we must be sure that He saves those who believe, and believe. Assurance as a reflex activity has to do with whether or not Jesus has saved us because we believed, not simply whether there is salvation in Christ. Calvin focused on the objective assurance of faith as necessary. The reflex activity, which is reflected in the Westminster Confession of Faith, not necessary, nor infallible (some sure they are saved are not because their certainty is based on something other than Jesus’ person and works). Ferguson spends time exploring Romans 8 to see the foundations of our assurance through the series of questions that Paul asks. If we are in Christ, no one can accuse us, condemn us or separate us from Christ. Opposition while seemingly great, is unable to thwart God and his purposes for us.

He then looks to some obstacles to assurance of salvation, also focusing on Romans 8 (Kevin DeYoung, for instance, goes to 1 John). He reflects the Westminster Confession, again. One is an inconsistent life as a Christian. He’s not talking about the presence of temptation, but the practice of unholiness. Forgetfulness of the indwelling Spirit is another obstacle for assurance. We can also be confused by suffering which often makes us think God does not love us.

Ferguson then looks at marks of assurance. They are laid out as:

  1. Satisfaction with God’s way of salvation.
  2. A new sense of security in Christ stimulates a new desire to serve him.
  3. Assurance fills our hearts with love for Christ.
  4. Boldness to live our lives for Christ.

“God does guide his people.” The question for the chapter is how God guides his people. We have to recognize that we won’t and can’t always understand what God is doing or up to in our lives. We can have guidance, but we won’t have comprehension. To illustrate the general views of guidance, Dr. Ferguson points us to the differences between Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The point of using them is that neither was an extremist and is esteemed within the Reformed community most likely to read Ferguson’s book. Whitefield was prone to rely on “impressions”. Edwards focused on “the application of the precepts and principles of his word.” During an overnight stay in Northampton by Whitefield, the two talked about this. Edwards was concerned about the dependence on this sudden impulses. How do we know they are from God unless they are consistent with biblical commands or principles. The Spirit may bring these things to mind when we need them, but we should still stop to consider whether that impression or impulse is consistent with Scripture properly understood. But this reliance on impulses is highly subjective, and God doesn’t speak to which legitimate job I should take, which single Christian woman I should marry, which house I should buy, etc. God reveals those not by impressions but largely through circumstances (which offer is better for me and my family overall, which woman actually wants to marry me, or which house can my spouse and I agree upon).

The difficulties we face, which God works for our maturity, are largely things we have little to no control over. These are realities that can often dismay and discourage Christians. We need to begin to see them from a different angle as under the providence of God who uses them for our good, even if they themselves are not good. Those difficulties he covers are sin, temptation, spiritual warfare and suffering.

“Sin is the internal enemy of spiritual growth.”

The sin in question is our original corruption, the sinful nature, the remaining presence of sin as a power in our hearts. This corruption which produces temptations and transgressions is one of God’s means to keep us humble, and amazed at the glory of the gospel. This is something that gets lost in the SSA discussion for some. Some seem to grossly minimize the problem of pride, and the great means God uses to root it out of our hearts.

“There is a profound correlation in the Christian life between the consciousness of sin and the realization of the wonder and power of the gospel. … Until we realize how great the weight of sin is, we will not make much progress in pursuing holiness without which we will never see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).” … He sets up an ongoing cycle in our lives, convicting us of sin in order to deepen his work of sanctification in us.”

In this chapter, Ferguson keeps returning to Psalm 119. It is the Word that exposes sin and its power, the Word that holds out gospel promises, and the Word that the Spirit uses for our sanctification thru these means.

His chapter, Overcoming Temptation, is probably the best in the book. I read this just after reading the PCA Report’s section on temptation, and thought they would have benefited from talking with Dr. Ferguson. This, while only one chapter, is great stuff. As one friend would say, he puts the cookies on the counter when the kids can reach them. The cookies being John Owen’s penetrating but heady work on this topic. He defines temptation, and notes that as such it is not sin (by this I believe he means transgression based on the larger context of the chapter). He speaks of indwelling sin remaining and producing an inclination and disposition to sin (verb, to transgress, or actual sin). In temptation, however, the enemy speaks as if we are already condemned. Maturity begins to tune this out, not in a way that minimizes the real danger we are in, but in a way that we don’t fall into the trap that means we might as well go ahead and sin anyway, or that we are so vile we are beyond hope because we experience such temptations.

“So the distinction between temptation and sin is vital theologically and also pastorally.”

He then explores Owen’s distinction between temptation and “entering into temptation.” In that process he explores the process of temptation.

Internal desires ==> stimulated further by the world ==> weakness exposed & opportunity for the devil to stimulate further

But the key to “entering into temptation” is a sentence I missed somehow in Owen that ties it together well.

“Whilst it knocks at the door we are at liberty; but when any temptation comes in and parleys with the heart, reasons with the mind, entices and allures the affections, be it a longer or shorter time, do it thus insensibly and imperceptibly, or do the soul take notice of it, we ‘enter into temptation’.” John Owen, Works, VI, 97

We enter into temptation, or transgress (I think he uses them interchangeably if we recall that transgressions include thoughts). There is a parley or dialogue instead of immediately saying “no” to temptation. We begin to argue with our temptation, or entertain that temptation. At this point the temptation becomes transgression.

In this context, Ferguson goes to David’s temptations regarding Bathsheba and Uriah for illustration and explanation. Then he shifts to the complementary accounts of the census to discuss the doctrine of concurrence in the context of temptation.

“Here, taking the statements together, God, Satan, and David are all involved in one and the same action. We should not try to resolve the tension here…”

In terms of overcoming temptation, he advocates watchfulness, prayer and being armed against the enemy. He then writes about spiritual warfare. Spiritual conflict is another difficulty we must face. He brings us to Ephesians 6, like so many other books I’ve read recently. Our ordinary life is the context, the setting, for our spiritual conflict. Here the Enemy seeks to disrupt and discourage. The conflict reminds us that we are intended, and only successful as a result, to depend upon the Lord’s provision to us in Christ for this warfare. As in other chapters, we see references to Pilgrim’s Progress. There is also the influence of William Still, his pastor while a student. The following sounds like a paragraph in Still’s book Towards Spiritual Maturity:

“… sudden sinful and distasteful thoughts and temptations; moments of feeling overwhelmed by a sense of darkness; doubts that appear in our minds from nowhere.”

Suffering can, sadly, define us. I’ve seen men crippled by suffering. By this I mean all roads lead to their particular and personal suffering. They seemed unable to really move beyond it. Their fixation stunts their growth. Forgetting our suffering can also stunt growth. Ferguson brings us back to Psalm 119 to show us that God intends us to learn from our suffering but not be ensnared by that suffering. He breaks it down this way:

  1. Affliction brings our spiritual needs to the surface.
  2. Affliction teaches us the ways of God.
  3. Affliction shows us the faithfulness of God.

Ferguson then brings us to Paul and his thorn to help us understand these realities in the flesh. It was a sharp pain in his life. He was “‘cuffed’ by it, beaten black and blue as it were.” Our usefulness for the future necessitates our prior suffering. We need to be changed, and shaped by that suffering.

“Satan desperately tries to drive the holy man insane.” John Calvin

Ferguson then moves into the areas we have more control over in the section Pressing On: service and endurance. Serving moves us beyond ourselves and our needs to the needs of others. He interacts with 1 Corinthians and Hebrews. God gives us grace to serve just like He gives us pardoning and purifying grace. He covers some of the pitfalls and dangers if we don’t deal with our selfishness when seeking to serve.

Crossing the finish line at the London Marathon (Image: Reuters)

The reality is that Christians must keep going to become mature. They keep running that race, by grace. Ferguson again provides some hindrances like indwelling sin, sluggishness, discouragement and more. He then provides some encouragements focusing on Christ who has run the race before us.

The book concludes with a short chapter on living maturely. In many ways he reiterates much of what he has already said. Maturity doesn’t mean “retirement” but continuing the life you’ve been living to the glory of God by the grace of God. As a result, the repetition makes sense.

This is a book drenched in Scripture that continually encourages the reader to dig into and chew on Scripture as one of the primary means of grace for maturity. This book also bleeds Bunyan and John Owen. Ferguson loves the Puritans, but his loves are not narrow. There is plenty of Calvin, as well as Augustine and other church fathers. He also refers to some recent books which means that Ferguson is reading in “community” past and present as Richard Pratt encouraged us as students.

Sinclair Ferguson provides us with another great book in his “retirement”. This book could well serve as Sinclair Ferguson on the Christian Life, thinking of the Crossway series. It makes the theological practical and pastoral as Ferguson usually does. It’s a keeper.

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2The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover image019 was the Year of John Newton. This means I read his works throughout the year. In the 4th quarter I read the 4th volume of the new edition. Due to the length of the volume and Christmas vacation, it took me a little longer to finish the volume.

As a side note, I found the editing in this volume to be much better than the 3rd volume. Maybe someone had a really bad stretch of time (crisis) when editing the 3rd volume. Maybe it was a new editor who needed experience. I don’t know, but I was glad I wasn’t stumbling on mistakes every time I opened the book.

“Keep always in mind that you are a sinner, and Jesus is a Savior of sinners.”

This final volume begins with letters to his wife. There are two main groups of letters to her. The first is during three voyages to Africa. He provides some glimpses into life as a 19th century sailor. You see a progression in these letters. They begin focused on the various events of the trips. Over time he begins to apply his growing theological convictions to the matters at hand, including some problems she was experiencing. A common theme or frustration he expressed was the fact that our hearts are idol factories, and he feared making her his idol.

‘I leave you in the hands of him who is able, and I trust willing, to preserve you from all evil, and to make everything easy to you. … a protecting Providence will surround me, and is no less to be depended on in the most apparent dangers, than in the greatest seeming security.”

These were trips furthering the slave trade. He seems not to grapple with the reality of that trade, yet. In a note on page 81, while in the section of his 2nd voyage, he explains why it didn’t bother him yet. He confesses that “custom, example, and interest, had blinded my eyes.” He, at the time, saw his trade as part of God’s providence. It was, but not for the reasons he imagined at the time. He would regret his part in the slave trade and work to end it. Had he never been in the trade, his attempts would have less passion, urgency and weight. We should struggle with God’s providence at times because His paths are beyond tracing out. It was also God’s providence that he was struck ill prior to a 4th journey, ending his career on the sea and in the slave trade.

“That powerful love, which brought down the Most High to assume our nature, to suffer, and to die for us, will not permit those who depend on him to want what is really good for them.”

This continues in the second main group of letters to his wife after ending his days upon the sea. There were periods when they were separated due to health or travel. His penchant for pastoral theology is evident, and his fear of idolizing his wife. We also see Newton’s affinity and admiration for George Whitfield which would eventually cause him problems as he sought a pastoral call in the Church of England. If you could put a label on a man who eschewed labels, it would likely be a Calvinistic Methodist like Whitfield.

“I still feel that you are my idol, and though the Lord has lately afflicted you for my sake, and is now raising you up for me again, as it were from the grace, I am not yet instructed.”

He also gives some insight to the deepest recesses of the soul. He speaks of “wild, foolish, and dreadful thoughts which often pester my mind.” Mr. Self is utterly corrupt, and people rarely see the depth of that corruption. We hide the worst parts of ourselves.

The next section of the book is a collection of previously unpublished (before the Works) that was intended to be a sequel to Cardiphonia. These letters cover a variety of subjects to a number of people: pastors, laymen and women he knew.

These are generally more theological than the letters to his wife since he is often responding to specific questions or debates he and the recipient engaged in. There is much about the providence of God regarding marriage, illness and other circumstances. He explores the reality of our sinfulness, that we are prone to wander. But he repeatedly reminds us that God is faithful. He struggles with people who have left the faith. Marriage, as he tells one woman, produces new temptations.

In one section he counsels a man considering ministry. He was a lay preacher in the military until forced out. Newton shares his own struggle with an internal call complicated by his associations as a lay preacher seeking ordination in a state church opposed to them.

“And the more simply we can reduce all our efforts to this one point, “Looking unto Jesus,” the more peace, fervor, and liveliness shall we find in our hearts, and the more success we shall feel in striving against sin in all its branches.”

We see Newton interacting with earlier theologians. For instance, he mentions disagreeing with Herman Witsius about degrees of glory. There is also a series of letters to a pastor struggling with assurance (I’ll post on this separately). He also “debates” Calvinism with another pastor. In this exchange they differ in their assessment of William Law and his book on a  Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. He finds Law to have fallen into the trap of legalism through a denial of double imputation.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgLet us not forget that Newton keeps bringing us back to Jesus, a Jesus he keeps exalting in a variety of ways. He wants us to look unto Jesus, not simply doctrinal positions.

Periodically we see references to world affairs connected with the Empire. He refers to the American Revolution (or Rebellion from his perspective). The French Revolution and expansion shows up periodically. He dreaded, it seemed, all things French due to their collapse into atheism.

The next main section was a series of theological miscellanies. He speaks about the government of the tongue, Pliny’s letter to Trajan, preaching with power to a young minister, the causes and symptoms of spiritual decline, reading the Bible and the tests of true doctrine.

Then there are a series of articles extracted from an evangelical magazine. This section begins with thoughts on the Trinity, recollections of a deceased pastor and author, modesty among women (largely focused on the financial cost of following current fashion), faith and the assurance of faith, and covetousness.

The volume continues with a sermon about the constraining influence of the love of Christ. This is followed by the long awaited Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. His focus is mostly on how individuals became slaves, and not how they were treated. He’s speaking from experience which was then decades in the past. He saw the Trade as “a stain upon our national character.” England paid a price for engaging in the slave trade too. Nearly 1/5 of the sailors, but his estimate, died on these voyages. This is on top of the moral corruption and greed.

“I have seen them sentenced to unmerciful whippings, continued till the poor creatures have not had power to groan under their misery, and hardly a sign of life remained. I have seen them agonizing for hours, I believe for days together, under the torture of the thumb-screws; …”

Some slaves were captured in wars between tribes, similar to what we see in earlier times. Others were convicts, sentenced to slavery. At times, tribes wanting to get slaves started wars. This would be “man-stealing”.

“I verily believe, that the far greater part of the wars in Africa would cease, if the Europeans would cease to tempt them, by offering goods for slaves.”

The volume greatly shifts gears to an address to the inhabitants of Olney. This is one of the congregations he served, and it is followed by a “token of affection and respect” to the yoked congregations he served in London. The latter in particular laments those members of the congregation who resisted his ministry.

The volume ends with a letter on political debate to another pastor. A pastor wanted some changes to the political system forgetting that sin is behind the abuses of any political system. God chastens nations for sin, but nations often refuse to repent but rather seek to make “fundamental change” that never addresses the sins of the culture. It finds scapegoats, like the rich, forgetting you don’t need to be rich to be greedy and covetous.

Newton was not known for his great theological mind. He was known for his great pastoral theology. As Josiah Bull noted, it is about Newton’s goodness of heart produced by grace. These volumes, this one included, are all about pastoral theology. Newton applies theology to particular problems, and consistently points people to Jesus. It can greatly shift how you go about pastoral ministry. I owe John Newton a great debt.

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In addition to Tim Keller’s book on preaching, I decided to read a booklet by J.C. Ryle entitled Simplicity in Preaching. I will confess that at times I struggle with being clever. I suspect that at times my preaching could use a little more (or a lot more) simplicity.

Ryle obviously thought many of his peers could also stand to exhibit more simplicity in their preaching. This is why he wrote the pamphlet (what is the difference between a booklet and a pamphlet, if any?).

It was interesting reading this on the heels of Keller’s book on preaching. He exhibited some of what Keller said, and advocated some of the same things. There was overall harmony here. He quoted from a number of “respected” non-Christian voices in the area of oration (Quintilian, Cicero, an Arabian proverb, a painter named Turner), as well as some respected preachers.

Rather than a manifesto, as Keller wrote, Ryle confined himself “to one point”. “That point is simplicity in language and style.”

“Unless you are simple in your sermons you will never be understood, and unless you are understood you cannot do good to those who hear you. … Of course the first object of a minister should be to preach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but ‘the truth as it is in Jesus’.”

So, we see the same goals in preaching. We see a different emphasis on how to achieve that goal. We can do all Keller (or Stott or any other author) encourages us to do, but if we aren’t understood it doesn’t matter who awesome it looks on paper.

Simplicity is not to be confused with simplistic or childish preaching. The pastor shouldn’t be talking down to them. He should be speaking so they understand. Ryle is not speaking about using coarse or vulgar speech. Understandably, but as a gentleman is a lesson Mark Driscoll needed.

Ryle then goes ahead to note five points toward simplicity. The first is “Know your subject.” I simplified that for him. It the subject of the sermon isn’t clear to you, it will be even less clear or more obscure to the congregation.

“Never choose a text of which you do not quite know what it means.”

There is much wisdom here. We grow into some texts. I did not preach through Colossians until my mid-late 40’s. There is a spiritual maturity necessary to preaching some portions of the letter well and wisely. While I’ve preached texts in Hebrews and Romans, there are still some I am only now feeling mature enough to preach wisely. It isn’t simply about understanding the commentaries but being able to evaluate them and communicate the truth.

He also warns against “fanciful subjects and accommodated texts”. By the latter he means a whole lotta eisegesis, or reading into a text so that you make it say something it never tries to say. Chose texts that are clear so your point is clear and simple.

Secondly, use simple words. Or, as Keller says, define more complex terms. I rarely use a theological term without defining it for the congregation. Ryle argues that short words are often the “most powerful and forcible words.”

In the midst of this point he gets caught up in a controversy about Saxon words rather than words of French or Latin origin. It seems to be a bit of a hot button issue of his day. His focus is not on the origin of the words, but words people understand.

Thirdly, use a simple style. You can’t preach like John Owen wrote. Keep sentences short rather than complex with a series of colons and semi-colons. He notes to “take care to write as if you were asthmatical or short of breath.” This is because you aren’t writing a book and they aren’t reading a book. The congregants can’t rewind the sermon to hear that phrase until they get it, you keep moving merrily along.

“A hearer of English hears once for all, and if he loses the thread of your sermon in a long involved sentence, he very likely never finds it again.”

In addition to simple style, use proverbs and epigrammatic sayings. They are brief but pointed. This means they communicate well and can be remembered easily.

Fourth, use a direct style. Use “I” and “you” while avoiding “we”. I often use “we” to communicate it applies to me as well as to them. But he has a point in that the composition of “we” is unclear. Whom does it signify? If you clarify that periodically, use “we” as I do. But if you don’t clarify they won’t know what you mean- that they are part of “we”. The directness is for clarity as well as forcefulness. “This applies to you”, not some vague Anybody. He notes that Whitefield was well-known for such directness. It was a large part of his effectiveness.

Fifth, use plenty of anecdotes and illustrations. They are “windows through which light is let in upon your subject.” He advocates reading the Puritans, among others, to see how they use illustrations. He lauds Moody’s use of them.

He notes that a preacher with an eye for them is a happy preacher. Such a man finds them in books, movies, music and real life. He sees how these seemingly ordinary things communicate spiritual truth. Unless you are a good story teller, keep them short. Make sure you aren’t obscuring the truth you want to communicate by a lengthy or poorly told illustration or anecdote.

After repeating his points in summary, he adds a word of application (he’s essentially following the Puritan sermonic pattern). Simplicity is attained with much hard work and trouble.

“You must not think that God will do work for you, though he is ready to do it by you.”

God illuminates the Scriptures as we work in them. He doesn’t bypass our study of the grammar, history, context etc. Likewise, as we put sermons together we are to work hard. Exercise your brains in preparation and putting them together.

Oddly, he notes not to spend time reading the Fathers. They are interesting and sometimes helpful, but he doesn’t want us to read for the sake of reading. Read wisely. Read people who not only provide good information but who model such simplicity (today we’d include listening to podcasts that model it for us).

He also notes that part of your “study” is talking with your people. Keller says something similar in terms of expanding your bubble and getting out of the echo chamber. He noted that his time in Hopewell was helpful because he was able to talk to his congregation about his sermons- what connected and what didn’t. Ryle is essentially saying the same thing. He uses an interesting illustration about a pastor asked about the Fathers noting he usually meets with the mothers when he visits because the fathers are at work.

“We must talk to our people when we are out of church, if we would understand how to preach to them in church.”

The goal is to hit their hearts with the truth. Talking with them means you’ll learn to talk to them and the concerns of their hearts.

He concludes with an important reminder:

“All the simplicity in the world can do no good, unless you preach the simple gospel of Jesus Christ so fully and clearly that everybody can understand it. If Christ crucified has not his rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to believe and be, and do, your preaching is of no use.

He also reminds us that simplicity is not a replacement for prayer, particularly for the Spirit’s work. Simplicity, though important, is not a magic bullet that covers a multitude of pastoral sins.

“… let us never forget to accompany our sermons by holy living and fervent prayer.”

Ryle provides preachers with a brief treatise that is helpful and often needful.

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I was so excited about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation I was laying awake for hours in the middle of the night.

Not really. Just some insomnia as I pondered my next sermon, my sermon series that begins in January and a host of other things. One of them was the Reformers.

Some people are very critical of the Reformation. There is indeed cause for lament over another divorce in the body of Christ (as a friend’s sermon put it). Some people are really bothered by the sins of the Reformers and subsequent leaders. Sins they are.

Many happen to be sins that our age looks down upon most severely. Sins that were not necessarily understood to be sins in their day. Luther’s anti-Semitism late in life. Calvin’s involvement in Servetus’ trial as a heretic resulting in the death penalty (this would be scandalous today, not necessarily sinful, though many misunderstand the circumstances and act like Calvin lit the fire). Edwards, Whitefield and others owned slaves. I could go on.

Some try to discredit the Reformation, or other movements within Protestantism, based on the sins of such leaders. How could God use such stubbornly sinful men?

Perhaps their sinfulness is the precise reason God used them.

God magnifies His grace by using Moses the murderer, David the adulterer & murderer, Jacob the con man, Abram the liar, Peter the impetuous, Paul the blasphemer etc. And the Reformers.

Ah, but those men repented. Luther, Edwards and others didn’t. Hmm, what about the sins you fail to repent of? Shall they overcome union with Christ too? Do they mean you were never united to Christ? We have to be careful for the measure we use will be how we are measured.

I’m not saying that these things weren’t sins. I am saying that His grace is greater than their sin (and mine).

By their sinfulness He is also saving us from our sinfulness. As Calvin noted, the human heart is “a factory of idols.” We would turn these men into saints, like Rome and the Orthodox so. Rather than leaders, we’d make them super-saints who were better than us. Even now many of us still struggle with this. Some try to down play, ignore and outright reject the idea that they were sinner like us.

God is patient and long-suffering with sinners. His active and passive obedience are sufficient for our salvation. As Steve Brown so “scandalously” said at the Ligonier National Conference in ’91, “there is nothing you can do to add to, or take away, from the work of Christ.” We are justified by Christ’s righteousness, not our own. This is the whole point of the Reformation’s re-discovery of the gospel. This is revealed clearly in the lives of these men (and women). Their faith was imperfect, just like ours is.

We quickly forget that we have our own cultural blindspots. We stand firm against many forms of addiction/idolatry. But not gluttony or shopping. Not our idolatrous pursuit of external beauty and “fitness”. Our “American Dream” driven greed would be called idolatry by Paul. Our exaltation of our culture as a norm (particularly by majority cultures) would receive a Galatians-like lashing from Paul. We’d better take the log out of our own eyes lest we somehow think we are better than these saved by grace alone saints of days gone by.

Reformation Day should really be humbling. We are truly saved by grace alone, always. Salvation is thru faith alone in Christ alone. It is for God’s glory alone. Reformation Day is the great day to remember that “Salvation Belongs to the Lord”, the focus of my sermon from Jonah 2:8-10.

The Reformation, and the Reformers, need not be perfect for us to express gratitude. It isn’t about big parties and celebrations (though those aren’t wrong) but about the grateful disposition of the heart.

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My ‘relationship’ with John Newton was a slowly developing affair. I’m sure you’ve had friendships like that. You meet a person, don’t think much of them at the time. Slowly you begin to see more of them. You see your common interests, and their strengths, previously hidden, come to light. Your appreciation grows.

That is my relationship with Newton. Ah, he wrote a few hymns, that’s nice. Over the years people shared some of his letters. I got to know a little bit more of his life. I read Piper’s short account of his life and bought The Letters of John Newton and Wise Counsel. Over time he has become one of my heroes in the faith. His importance to the church and the world is matched by few.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace attempts to let us in on the ‘secret’ that is the life of John Newton. The book is easy to read, with short chapters that fit into busy schedules.  Aitken does not hide from us the sinfulness and brokenness of the young Newton. He was the son of a captain whose mother died when he was young. Her gospel influence gone, he often lived with relatives while his father was at sea. He would follow in his father’s footsteps, but soon earned a reputation as being a despicable human being. He was a piece of work, as they say. Some of the words used to describe him would be blasphemer, fornicator, obstinate rabble rouser, dabbler in black arts and more.

“For the fourth time on four successive ships, Newton managed to alienate his captain.”

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WTS Doesnt Have This???

WTS Doesn't Have This???

Henry Scougal gets to the heart of nominal Christianity in his book The Life of God in the Soul of Man.  This book is foundational for the ministries of such godly men as George Whitefield and John Piper.

“Men are unwilling to quarrel with the religion of their country, and since all their neighbors are Christians, they are content to be so too; but they are seldom at the pains to consider the evidences of those truths, or to ponder the importance and tendency of them; and thence it is that they have so little influence on their affections and practices.  Those ‘spiritless and paralytic thoughts,’ as one doth rightly term them, are not able to move the will, and direct the hand.  We must therefore endeavor to work up our minds to a serious belief and full persuasion of divine truths, unto a sense and feeling of spiritual things: out thoughts must dwell upon them, till we be both convinced of them and deeply affected with them.”

The nominal Christian “accepts” the doctrines of Christianity, but they make no difference in how they live because they do not love Jesus Christ and the doctrines of Christianity.  Their hearts are not moved to worship and obedience.

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Though often hailed as a monentous, historic revival, I have not found the Lakeland Outpouring to  compare favorably to other revivals using biblical criteria.  Whether people want to admit it or not, leadership matters.

The “mother of all revivals” was the Great Awakening.  There have been many books critically examining the Great Awakening, some by no less a heart and mind on fire for God than Jonathan Edwards.  Imagine how that assessment might change if Edwards, or Whitefield was discovered to have been an adulterer.  Or simply divorced his wife?  Would we say that God uses flawed people?  Well, of course he does since only Jesus was perfectly righteous.  But when you look at the flawed folks who led revivals in the Bible, did they have such smudge marks?  No.  David’s life was marked by pain and conflict after his affair with Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah the Hittite (not to be confused with Uriah Heep).

Photo 6/12 by Michael Wilson

Photo 6/12 by Michael Wilson

Today I heard that Todd Bentley is separating from his wife– the first step of divorce proceedings in Canada, of which they are both citizens.  She recently packed up her bags and left the warmer climes of Florida with the kids.  This after a few years of marriage counseling.

Rev. Stephen Strader assures us that no third party is involved.  Is this supposed to make us feel better?  No adultery, they just can’t get along.  The ‘gospel’ he preaches can not help them work out their marriage issues.  There is no grace to be offered to one another.  There is no power to change their sinful patterns of behavior.  No miracle for them.

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I thought I’d heard all of Steve Brown’s sermons while I was in seminary.  Either I didn’t, or he got a whole new bunch of them for his book A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel. 

I’d been wanting to read Steve’s book on grace for a few years.  Finally did, and glad I did.  Steve makes reading theology fun, and sometimes that can be no small feat.  There is possibly no greater sin than making theology boring, though the blood of Jesus is sufficient to forgive even that!  Steve doesn’t have to worry about sinning big there.

Steve likes to say things in a controversial way.  Lots of younger pastors do that now too.  But what he says is usually true.  Other guys often speak untruth.  I remember the 1991 Ligonier Conference on the Cross.  In his first sermon Steve was hitting hard on how we “cannot add to or take anything away from the Cross.”  Your obedience doesn’t make you more saved, or your disobedience less saved- it all rests on what Jesus did.  Some people went from that into thinking Steve was an antinomian (someone who thinks the law and obedience are irrelevant).  Oh, how we long to be self-righteous little religious fanatics.

This book is about grace, and the ways we forfeit it by living in prisons of our own design.  Jesus has set us free, but we miss the feel of the chains.  Throughout this book, Steve makes a number of really good points using some really good illustrations.  There was only one small point I would quibble with- but since I didn’t want to throw the book against the wall, I won’t even mention what it was.

Steve starts with the fact that we are free in Christ, moves to our false views of God, then a summary of the gospel and into the various prisons we put ourselves in.

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