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Image of the works of John newtonThe second volume in The Works of John Newton is even a little more varied than the first volume. The first had a biography, then his memoirs in letter form followed by more letters. This volume begins with the remaining letters of Cardiphoia, followed by some collections of sermons, then his ecclesiastical history and then the Olney Hymnbook. There is clearly plenty of material here.

In one of his books Jerry Bridges talks about the pool hall, and that his parents warned him to not go to the pool hall. He thought there was something wrong with playing pool. As it turned out, the concern was the gambling and unsavory characters associated with that pool hall (and some others).

I wonder if something similar happened with Newton and the playhouse. The first series of letters is to a Miss TH***, and they include his rebuke about her attendance at a playhouse. “I am well satisfied, that if there is any practice in this land sinful, attendance on the play-house is properly and eminently so. The theatres are fountains and means of vice…”.

I agree that the gospel is “a source of purer, sweeter, and more substantial pleasures.” We are invited into communion with God, but does that preclude our viewing stories told on TV, movies and stage? He is helping her wrestle with the impact of holiness on entertainment. Like most I’m probably quick to point out the shows I choose not to watch on account of their content but overlook the ones I do. In seminary one professor recommended I watch Seinfeld and another lamented the horrible choices students were making by watching such shows.

These letter grapple with living one’s faith in their circumstances and choices. They point us to Christ, not just for holiness but also for pardon. “Our sins are many, but his mercies are more; our sins are great, but his righteousness is greater.” He helps people wrestle with God’s providence in light of God’s character. This includes his famous paraphrase of Romans 8:28- “All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds.” He’s also very aware of the weakness of the flesh and that hard circumstances draw forth our corruptions.

He also interacts with men in ministry or considering ministry. At times they are men of different opinions than Newton. He tries to gently instruct, and provides a model for such discourses (rather than polemics). Polemics is for books, though even there winsomeness can help, not for personal relationships. He also covers topics like the length and volume of sermons, when to leave a church and more.

He writes about assurance of salvation to William Wilberforce’s aunt. There are letters on “backsliding”. He speaks of the pain of friendship and placing our hope in God alone. He also notes “it is merciful in the Lord to disappoint our plans and to cross our wishes.”

There are also some odd events, adding to the personal character. He writes of a lion they had in town and a discussion with its keeper. He writes of his own frustrations in some of the doctrinal debates, how he doesn’t fit perfectly in any one camp: “I am sort of a speckled bird among my Calvinist brethren … the Dissenters (many of them I mean) think me defective … neither do my dimensions fit exactly with them (Methodists).” So, one will find sorts of things of interest and help.

The sermons begin with a series of discourses that he intended to preach but apparently did not. They cover the deceitfulness of the human heart, Jesus and salvation, the name “Christians”, all things being given to us with Christ, and searching the Scriptures. In some ways they are an introduction to the Christian life. There is much that is very good in these discourses. In the last discourse he seems to discourage the expositional preaching through books. One finds subjects or themes to preach upon. So John and I could possibly have a lengthy discussion on this topic.

“None are so bad but the gospel affords them a ground of hope: none so good as to have any just ground for hope with it.”

Next are 20 sermons preached in Olney. He begins a series of sermons on Matt. 11:25 on the lack of success the gospel ministry may meet due to the mysteries of the gospel being hid from many. He preaches 4 sermons on that text before moving on to verse 26. There he begins to assert the sovereignty of divine grace. In the 6th sermon he moves to the person of Christ in vv. 27. That includes authority. This means that the glory and grace of God are revealed in Christ. After these 3 sermons on vv. 27, he moves to vv. 28 to discuss our labor and heavy load what it means to come to Christ and the rest he provides. Yes, 3 sermons on that before addressing vv. 30. This may be why he didn’t generally preach thru books- he would have died before he finished one with so many sermons on individual verses.

This is, in my opinion, one of the weaknesses of Puritan preaching which he seems to emulate here. The themes can be subtly removed from the context of the larger passage and book if one is not careful. We can be so focused on a word or phrase that we miss the overall meaning of a text.

Newton then moves to Romans 14 to discuss liberty and misconduct. The next sermon offered concerns the 3rd commandment out of Exodus 20. These sermons and those which follow are all disconnected from one another. He then jumps to 1 Cor. 9:24 and running the race. Then he jumps back to Micah 6:6-8 and James 2. You get the point. These were not preached, I imagine, sequentially.

They are good sermons and there are plenty of helpful statements in them. There is often encouragement to be found in them.

His Review of Ecclesiastical History is not quite what I expected. Generally such works begin after the time of the Apostles. His pretty much ends there. He’d hoped to write more volumes, but that is all he got to write. He was a busy many, as his many apologies for delays litter his letters.

“The history of all ages and countries uniformly confirms the Scriptural doctrine, that man is a depraved and fallen creature, and that some selfish temper, ambition, avarice, pride, revenge, and the like, are, in effect, the main-springs and motives of his conduct, unless so far, and in such instances, as they are corrected and subdued by Divine grace.”

His introduction focuses on the resistance of the human heart to the truth and the spread of persecution. He was thankful that the law of England limited the persecution of the church. He begins with the ministry of Jesus.

“We may describe the gospel to be- A divine revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, discovering the misery of fallen man by sin, and the means of his complete recovery by the free grace of God, through faith, unto holiness and happiness.”

He breaks this definition down, phrase by phrase. Then he returns to the subject of opposition, in particular by the religious leaders in Israel. The particular groups represent the basic types of resistance: legalism/self-righteousness, liberals or the self-wise, the worldly-wise or compromising. Newton then contrasts the disciples before and after Christ’s resurrection and ascension. He focuses on the influences of grace, however imperfect.

The second period of Christianity was the work of the Apostles. He retraces much of the Acts of the Apostles. This section is almost like a little commentary with some helpful words on the biblical book. He tries to focus on the needs of his time as he edits the vast history. As he goes he gives the supposed date of the events and the emperor at the time.

As he reports the advice of Gamaliel, I wonder how often we should heed that. Many fads in theology have come and gone, but each time we act like this one is the end of the church as we know it, only for the controversy to die down and the movement or false doctrine to die out (like the emergent church, open theism etc.).

Newton shifts his attention to Paul’s character as an example for ministers. He was a self-righteous and moral man who’s need for a Savior was revealed. Paul was concerned for doctrinal purity as relates to the great doctrines of the faith. He was discerning about which deviations were deadly to the gospel and which weren’t.

“Self is too prevalent in the best men, and the tendency of self is, to exact submission, to hurry to extremes, to exaggerate trifles into points of great consequence, and to render us averse to the healing expedients of peace.”

Paul derived the circumstantials and essentials of religion from the same source- the Scriptures. Newton explains the differences between them. Paul’s zeal was matched by his humility.

Newton moves on to the irregularities and offenses of the Apostles’ days. He brings us to the letters of the Apostles’ (and Acts) to see some of the most important problems they experienced. He addresses the public worship of Corinth, for instance. He still doesn’t give an answer to the supposed contradiction between chapters 11 and 14 on women speaking i the service. One persistent problem was the attachment some Jewish converts had to the law of Moses. We also see early forms of Antinomianism.

The hymnbook contains only titles and lyrics. It provides the text that influenced particular hymns. At times we can see how the form we have now is much different- verses missing or added (particularly with Amazing Grace). There are many hymns whose words should prove of interest to those who update the music of hymns.

I’m finding The Works of John Newton to be worth the investment of my time this year. They would likely be worth your investment too.

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The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set)John Newton has long been one of my favorite ‘dead guys’. A few years ago Banner of Truth reformatted his Works into 4 volumes (from the previous 6 volume set) and I picked up a set. Last year I read a church history set over the course of the year. This year I decided I’ll read a volume of Newton each quarter.

Well, the first quarter is done. One of the idiosyncrasies of the first volume in the pagination. If you look at the back it is just over 600 pages. But … it begins with Memoirs of Rev. John Newton from page xvii-cxlvi so the volume is nearly 750 pages long. I did have to adapt my reading schedule from 10 pages/day to 10-15/day and some times adding some Saturday reading.

After the Memoirs of Rev. John Newton we find An Authentic Narrative of Some Remarkable and Interesting Particulars in the Life of John Newton, in Fourteen Letters. In other words, Newton’s autobiography over the course of 14 letters. Then we have Forty-One Letters on Religious Subjects, by Omnicron and Vigil (a pseudonym) and Cardiphonia; or, the Utterance of the Heart, in the Course of a Real Correspondence.

The theme of volume one is two-fold: his life and his letters. We will find more of his letters in volume two (as they complete Cardiphonia). It did seem strange to have both the Memoirs and the Narrative at the beginning of his works. In one sense it makes sense thematically. From the perspective of the reader I would have preferred some space between the two accounts of his life.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgHis life, however, is an amazing testimony to the patience, persistence and providence of God. And the amazing grace of God. It is easy to lose track of how many times Newton nearly died, or should have died. For instance, one time the captain told him to stay on the ship one night after dinner. It was his custom to sleep ashore. The captain had no identifiable reason. That night the boat sank before reaching shore meaning Newton, who could not swim, would have drowned. Another time he took ill days before a voyage and could not go. That ship sank and Newton would have been lost. There are many of these stories which should remind you of how often we may be spared without knowing it.

Behind the seemingly random chaos of life, Newton saw God’s providence. He didn’t necessarily understand, or claim to understand, why God would do such things, but accepted that He did. And so should we. We don’t have to understand why. We do need to simply trust that God has His good reasons (a subject to which he will return often in his letters).

We fail to accept the fragility of life in our day. Due to technology we think we can prevent accidents from occurring. In his day, they were accepted as par for the course. For Newton, at least, the god-complex of thinking we should be able to control life didn’t exist. Both evil and calamity existed. We, on the other hand, seem to pretend evil doesn’t exist except in rare cases, and think we can prevent all calamity.

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott.jpg

William Cowper by Lemuel Francis Abbott

Mental illness shows up as well, both in the life of William Cowper and in some of Newton’s letters. This, obviously, was before the use of medications to treat them. People could be institutionalized for years. Cowper would die in an institution. Newton’s adopted daughter would also spend time in one. In a letter he alludes to visiting a person in an institution for the mentally ill, and it was a great struggle for him. It reminded me of the visits I’ve done to prison: there’s something about hearing that door slam shut and lock behind you. It feels oppressive.

This is not hagiography, which is refreshing. You do get a picture of a flawed man, a trophy of grace. You get a taste of life’s hardship. You also get a taste of societal sins: class and race struggles that marked his day. But also the people who worked to end the legalize prejudice. Today Newton might be called a Social Justice Warrior, but I think that would be quite the misnomer. He did fight to end some injustices which he saw as implications of the gospel. He was haunted by past sins of his regarding the slave trade. He kept the gospel central, and so can we.

As Newton moved into pastoral ministry, there was seemingly controversy on every side. Divisions filled England and its churches. He notes the high Calvinists considered him an Arminian and Arminians recognized him as the Calvinist he claimed to be. There were also Dissenters or Independents. This was a time when declaring oneself as a Methodist or Enthusiast closed many doors for service. Newton grew weary of such debate and dissension in Christ’s church. He wrote often enough about how to conduct ourselves in controversy. He also interacted with pastors who were younger and needing a mentor, and pastors of different minds on the secondary issues.

He provides some sound pastoral advice to pastors about subjects like when to seek a new call in addition to engaging in controversy. For me these have often been timely words of advice.

Sinclair Ferguson notes that the details of our conversion often shape the concerns of our Christian life. He notes Paul’s envy of Stephen’s gifts, as well as Isaiah’s subsequent focus on the holiness of God. In Newton’s case, he focused on the sinfulness of the human heart and God’s purposes in providence. They fill his letters. This is part of why I love Newton.

Newton doesn’t paint a picture of experiential religion that places us above and beyond sin. Rather, he struggles with his own heart, recognizing the temptations that arise both in private and public. In a number of places he wonders how a Christian can survive in London with all its temptations. This was before he was called to serve a church in London later in life. No pastors are called to serve in paradise. And neither is anyone else.

Newton is not excusing sin, but honest about the effects of indwelling sin, the world and the devil. He is critical of Christian Perfectionism that was found among some including some Methodists. Our pilgrimage is thru a fallen society that pressures us to sin, stirred up to sin and tempt by the Evil One, and possessing a heart that is too often receptive to these temptations.

“So wonderfully does the Lord proportion the discoveries of sin and grace; for he knows our frame, and that if was to put forth the greatness of his power, a poor sinner would be instantly overwhelm, and crushed as a moth.”

In addition to temptation we also experience much in the way of affliction. God reveals our weakness as well as His strength. It is not enough for us to consider this intellectually, but He wants us to “feel” our weakness and experience His sufficient supply. By these afflictions he reveals the idols of our hearts and the sufficiency of Christ for our satisfaction.

His letters address the subjects we struggle with but often don’t talk about. As a result, they are immensely helpful.

There are some topics of historical interest. Some of the letters mention the American Revolution. In that context he refers to the problem of the national debt a few times. He views the colonists as sinning in their rebellion against the king, but also that this is in some way a judgment on the nation.

For the anti-vax crowd, one letter struggles with the advent of the vaccine for small pox. He thinks thru the situation out loud. Does a trust in the God of providence avoid the vaccination leaning solely on Him or see this as God’s providential provision of means.

On subject of puzzlement is his view of the theatre or playhouse. He views it as a venue for sin. He doesn’t specify the content of particular plays. Could it be the sin that took place in the playhouses? In one of Jerry Bridges’ book on grace he mentions he grew up hearing that he should avoid the pool halls. As he grew older, he learned that playing pool itself was not the issue, but the gambling and other sins that took place in the pool hall.

Newton does chastise one person in a letter for attending a play. I need more context as to why in this case. Apart from the context it sounds a bit legalistic.

Volume One has plenty of material worth reading. Most of it is in readable chunks thanks to the fact it is largely letters. You can follow along as some relationships develop over time. Why don’t more people read John Newton?

 

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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.

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I found it in a “clearance bin” online. It was discounted, but I was intrigued.

The title was On the Brink: Grace for the Burned-Out Pastor. I wasn’t sure if I was burned-out but I was certainly discouraged, folded, spindled and mutilated (or so I felt). The last few years of ministry had been very difficult and were taking their toll on me. I was a ripe candidate for this book by Clay Werner.

“It is much needed because pastors experience loneliness and discouragements, even depression and despair, more often than most church members (and even other pastors) realize.” Dennis Johnson in the Forward

In the midst of ministry we can often lose sight of God. Our God awareness suffers. This is where he begins. He spends time looking at Moses and Israel in the wilderness journey to help us understand the pressures at work. We work with people who are prone to forget God’s grace & goodness, grumble & complain (we are in that mix too). We see Moses at times strong and wise and at other times foolish and worn out. At times we are up for the challenges, and sometimes they eat our lunch. Moses never gave up and ran away. But Werner reminds us that Moses was simul justus et peccator, and so are we.

Image result for pressureHe looks at both external and internal pressures upon pastors. We face the challenges of balancing ministry and family, leadership, administration and management. We face the isolation of leadership (people may know some of what troubles us, but rarely the whole picture and we can’t necessarily share all of it). Compassion fatigue can hit us as wave after wave of difficulty hits us. That has been the last few years with a steady stream of high involvement crises, deaths, conflicts and other losses sent me tumbling like a toy boat caught in high tide at a set of breakers.

Into this he addresses the futility of our work. Ministry has been complicated by Adam’s disobedience and the curse that came as a result. There are lots of thorns and thistles, and not as much fruit as we’d like.

This shifts us into the internal pressures to perform and produce. We struggle with idolatry and establishing our kingdom and not His.

“… there are times when walking away from the community to which God has called you to minister seems to be safer than staying.”

God gives us the gift of disillusionment. He quotes Eugene Peterson who’s simplifying Bonhoeffer: “The church we want becomes the enemy of the church we have.” We have a longing for Eden though we live east of Eden. All pastors will wrestle with this if they have any ambition: godly or selfish. God works to expose the “utopian concept” most Christians experience. Growth is intended to take place (for the pastor and the congregation) in the midst of this very imperfect community. The community is “at the same time just and sinner” too. We live in a tension between loving the community as it is and yet longing for it to change (and working for it).

Werner moves to the great crisis of his faith. If the resurrection wasn’t true, he was done with ministry. And so he took a retreat to the woods to read and pray. In this chapter he also discusses the reasons were are “on the brink” or the injured list: prolonged exhaustion, delight turned to duty, discouragement ==> depression, older-brother mentality, anger, self-indulgence and the list goes on. If the resurrection is true, why do we experience these and why is the church so slow to change? This is where it hits, and hurts.

In the midst of this (and so many other areas) he turns us to John Newton. He warned of listening to yourself. He warned of comparing your place with that of others, particularly those that seem to be flourishing. Newton points us to God and his sovereign faithfulness.

He has a short transitional section on the cross as the remedy. God addresses our needs in Christ and Him crucified. We see His love and commitment as well as our stubborn sinfulness.

This brings him back to the resurrection: the resurrection of Christ, our hearts, our hope, our joy and endurance. Here he also applies the already-not yet to the reality of ministry.

He then reminds us of the love of God for us, the transforming love of God. This love enables us to forgive others and love them in their weakness and sinfulness.

This also allows us to dive into the difficulty of ministry. Jesus didn’t pull back from ministry with such flawed disciples. He calls us to join Him in working with such people.

He then deals with our desire to run away, the selfish desire to have our own life. We are curved inward, which is precisely why Jesus had to come and rescue us. He reminds us of the Suffering Servant again, who didn’t run away from the demands of ministry to difficult people like you and me.

He also calls us to fight for the unity of the church. The Prince of Peace came to bring unity to the church. The gospel is necessary for us to pursue peace. We also need character formed by the gospel to pursue peace. Additionally we need gospel competency.

God is our God for the long haul. He calls ministers to work with their congregations for the long haul. He ends on this note.

This is a brief book (about 130 pages) which is good for pastors who are “on the brink”. They need succinct help, and Clay Werner provides it. He draws on Scripture, John Newton, John Calvin and Francis Schaeffer throughout this book. They provided him with wise advice that he wants to pass on to others.

Image result for in case of emergencyThe chapters are similar to sermons. There is an opening illustration to frame the chapter. He returns to illustration to wrap up the chapter. It is a well put together book. It is a book that pastors are well advised to keep on their shelf. At some point they will need it “in case of emergency” because one day that emergency will come. The pastor who reads it can receive help and survive the inevitable emergencies. Maybe you’ll even find a copy in a clearance bin. Don’t confuse that with its worth.

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Last year at this time I was preaching through Jonah. I wish I had Tim Keller’s latest book at the time. The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy should raise any controversy with the title. I’m sure there will be plenty to annoy some. But I loved reading this book.

The book is dedicated to John Newton whose life and ministry made a big impact on Keller. Those familiar with Newton’s writings will find his influence in many places.

He makes two passes through the book, exploring the themes that are found there. The first pass (9 chapters) handles the text sequentially. The second goes back through thematically to address our relationship to God’s Word, God’s world and God’s grace.

It is in Keller’s typical winsome style that points out where we tend to go wrong whether to the left or the right. He’s an equal opportunity offender, but it is so gentle I don’t understand how people get so mad at him. He’s generally right.

In the introduction he alludes to one of his other books. In the first half of the book Jonah is like the younger brother who goes to the far country to avoid his father. In the second half he’s like the angry older brother who is upset about the Father’s joy in repentance.

Jonah stands out as the willfully disobedient prophet to a willfully disobedient people. He is the representative Israelite. Jonah doesn’t trust God. He doesn’t trust that God has his best interests in mind. He is so like, … us.

“And that is the problem facing Jonah, namely, the mystery of God’s mercy. It is a theological problem, but it is at the same time a heart problem. … The story of Jonah, with all its twists and turns, is about how God takes Jonah, sometimes by the hand, other times by the scruff of the neck, to show him these things.”

Keller starts with the storms of life. “All sin has a storm attached to it.” (btw: I read people who claim Keller never talks about sin, or uses the word. What are they talking about?!) Jonah’s disobedience brought a literal storm not only into his life but the lives of the Gentile sailors. Sin’s storms don’t remain isolated to the particular sinner in question. “Sin is the suicidal action of the will upon itself.” He does clarify that most storms are from the condition of sin, meaning that we live in a fallen world and we don’t need to find the particular sin/sinner behind each hurricane, flood or drought. But know that when we sin, there are often earthly consequences.

For the Christian, the storms of life (afflictions) are meant to produce good. He is at work in this storm to bring Jonah to Ninevah for them to receive mercy. For example, I saw a recent interview with Donna Rice who experienced a storm of publicity due to her affair with Senator Gary Hart. She said that the storm brought her back to her Christian faith.

Next Keller explores the idea of who our neighbor is. These Gentiles are better human beings than the prodigal prophet. God is using the disobedient prophet to lead Gentiles to faith and repentance through his disobedience. Jonah only wants to see himself as an Israelite, as part of a faith community. He needs to also see himself as part of humanity, the broader community. Frankly, Christians have the same problem. We don’t have much concern with those around us as long as our lives are going okay. And so Keller explores common grace.

He then moves into the “other”, the question of identity and those who have a different identity than we do. Jonah’s national identity blinded him in many ways. The early church would struggle with the same problem. We use that identity to exclude other people unnecessarily. We dehumanize people who don’t share our ethnic, national or political identities. We’ve seen this as one of the early steps in the holocaust and other genocides (Rwanda, Armenian etc.). This was very helpful as I preached thru Philippians 3 and the false identities we can boast in.

Keller moves to the pattern of love, and the heart of the gospel with substitution. Jonah is a type of Jesus who would die for our sins instead of sins of his own. The storm of God’s merciful wrath (the phrase I used in my sermons, adapted by a phrase of Luther’s) is stilled.

“To deny God’s wrath upon sin not only robs us of a full view of God’s holiness and justice but also can diminish our wonder, love, and praise at what it was that Jesus bore for us.”

In this context he connects wrath with love too. God’s wrath is directed at actions (and people) who harm what He loves. He again clearly articulates the gospel contrary to what the discernment blogs claim about him.

The Gentile sailors end up offering praise and sacrifices to YHWH after the storm is stilled. Keller notes the irony in that Jonah sought to avoid bringing truth to Gentiles, aka wicked pagans, but actually does anyway.

Image result for jonahHe then delves deeper into grace as Jonah wrestles with God in the belly of the fish. He’s gone as low as he can go (the literary irony) because he didn’t go up to Ninevah. Jonah “does business” with God only when he can no longer run from God. He’s trapped and finally admits the ugly truth. Often God has to bring us to similar places before, like addicts, we admit we’ve made a complete mess of things by our disobedience and can’t fix it.

With Jonah finally going to Ninevah, the discussion moves to repentance. They repented of their injustice, and moved toward justice. They were a violent, oppressive people. Repentance meant turning away from their violence and oppression. When the gospel calls us out of sin, it also calls us out of injustice. This is Keller’s connection between the gospel and “social justice”. He’s not preaching a social gospel, but the gospel of Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement with implications for justice in society. He’s not preaching a privatized faith nor a civil faith or religion. Personal faith is lived out in society as well as the community of faith.

With God relenting another storm arises, this time in Jonah’s heart. He’s beyond angry. In Jonah’s mind, relenting from destruction means the inevitable destruction of Israel. He’s blind to Israel’s sin, apparently, just as we tend to be to our sin and the sin of our communities.

God responds with patience and instruction. He is not only concerned about Israel, but all these people who also bear His image. He even cares about the livestock. That’s who He is. Unlike Jonah, Jesus wept over Jerusalem over the impending destruction for its wickedness.

“They want a “God of love,” but a God of love who does not get angry when evil destroys the creation he loves is ultimately not a loving God at all. If you love someone, you must and will get angry if something threatens to destroy him or her.”

Both God’s righteousness and His love are functions of His goodness! We don’t play them against one another but embrace them both as grounded in His goodness. So, this same God can justify the wicked because He loved them in sending His Son as a propitiation for their sin. Jesus satisfied His righteousness and His love. He didn’t satisfy His righteousness so God was then free to love.

Keller then moves to the three final themes of his book. Like Jonah (following Adam and Eve) we struggle to believe God’s Word is good for us. We minimize His wisdom and magnify ours. We trust our word over His.

“Sin always begins with the character assassination of God. We believe that God has put us in a world of delights but has determined that he will not give them to us if we obey him.”

Keller defends the substitutionary atonement from the charge of “divine child abuse” as infamously made by Steven Chalke. That charge does damage to the Trinity, not simply atonement. The one God in three persons works to save us. Jesus is not some lesser being offered to change the mind of an angry deity.

IImage result for dodo birdn terms of our relationship to God’s world he returns the question of our neighbor. Calvin, he notes, reminded us that all our neighbors bear the image of God and we must remember that. Keller applies this to politics. We must find a way between the erroneous beliefs that we should just preach the gospel and avoid politics, or that politics is all-important. The two party system tries to push a “package deal” on us instead of allowing us to vote “a la carte”. Pro-life Democrats are going the way of the dodo. But this doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Republican. They have anti-Christian views too. The gospel of the One who died for us when we were His enemies, calls us out of our partisanship and demonization of the other side. Loved by One we hated, we can begin to love ones we hated.

Keller moves into how privileged status can play out in perverting justice. The same laws should apply to all within a society. He mentions “citizens over immigrants” without any mention of their legal or illegal status as immigrants (I think this matters in light of Romans 13). But immigrants and other vulnerable groups should not be taken advantage of by the powerful. Christians, who worship a just God, should care about justice.This is not at the expense of the God but on account of the gospel.

“We must realize that since all our social problems stem from our alienation from God, the most radical and loving thing you can do for a person is to see him or her reconciled to God.”

IImage result for c.s. lewisn our relationship to God’s grace Keller clearly puts a changed life as a result of salvation, not the cause of salvation. In this it differs from every other religion. Here he explores Lewis’ The Four Loves to discuss our attachment to our people and culture. Lewis affirms a love for our people, but notes “We all know now that this love becomes a demon when it becomes a god.” Love of country is not the same a fascism or racism. Lewis rejects anti-patriotism as extremism just as he rejected any nationalism that begins to denigrate and destroy those who are different. [It is important to understand what is meant when someone uses the term ‘nationalism’. It can simply refer to the love of country that is normal for most people, and not the political movement used to justify the supremacy of a nation.] When do you know love of country has gone toxic? When it ignores the blemishes of its past. EVERY country has very ugly blemishes in its past. In the present, every country is full of “good” and evil people (law abiding vs. criminals). Lewis notes that when a country begins to intentionally suppress or erases its misdeeds they begin to express racial/national/ethnic superiority. We then find ourselves on the doorstep of racism and oppression. This is a very helpful section. This is pertinent because it helps us to understand what Jonah experienced in himself. Turning from grace he was in the throes of a toxic nationality that wanted to withhold God from other people groups.

Jesus purchased people from every tribe, tongue, nation and language. The gospel mission focuses on loving other people groups, not just your own. This is the heart of Jonah’s struggle and ours. Will we embrace the mystery of God’s mercy or will we try to bottle it up as exclusively for people just like us? Jonah doesn’t resolve that question in his life, because it isn’t fully resolved in the readers. The question is, what will you do next knowing that God cares about those people too?

In the future I hope to read Anthony Carter’s book on Jonah,Running From Mercy: Jonah and the Surprising Story of God’s Unstoppable Grace, which was released at about the same time.

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TWashed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexualityhe controversy over the Revoice Conference is producing plenty of heat. For me it is a frustrating conversation because of the heightened emotions, quotes that may or may not be taken out of context, a lack of civility and the presence of shibboleths. It is hard to work through the maze of opinions to identify actual facts.

One of the key note speakers is Wesley Hill. This seemed like a good time to take his book Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality off of my shelf and read it. It is only about 150 pages, and slightly larger than mass market paperback pages at that. Therefore the book reads quickly. I read it in my spare time over about 3 days.

He lays out the book like this:

Prelude: Washed and Waiting

1. A Story-Shaped Life

Interlude: The Beautiful Incision

2. The End of Loneliness

Postlude: “Thou Art Lightning and Love”

3. The Divine Accolade

Wesley grew up in the Church. As a member of the Anglican communion, he holds to general biblical orthodoxy. Wesley also struggles with same sex attraction, and has as long as he remembers.

“I have never found a book I could resonate with that tries to put into words some of the confusion and sorrow and triumph and grief and joy of the struggle to live faithfully before God, in Christ, with others, as a gay person.”

Wesley notes that his homosexuality has hindered his life and flourishing spiritually. It has not helped him. If I could put words into his mouth, he wishes God would flip a switch so he would no longer be a homosexual. Homosexuality is one of the many ways human nature has been distorted by sin “and therefore that homosexual practice goes against God’s express will for all human beings, especially for those who trust in Christ.”

“So this book is neither about how to live faithfully as a practicing homosexual person nor about how to live faithfully as a fully healed or former homosexual man or woman.”

He has concluded that it is healthier to live as one whose struggles are known to close friends than to live in the dark. He admits that he is young (late twenties at the time of writing it). He is in need of growth, knowledge and wisdom. He is writing as a homosexual Christian to homosexual Christians about being a homosexual Christian.

And here we come to one of the shibboleths! Some disagree with the use of that term. Rosaria Butterfield, for instances, argues against using it in her book on the basis of the fact that our identity is in Christ. Our identity shouldn’t be in our sin. Others have put for “sexual sufferers” as a suitable option in light of that. This too, however, focuses on our sin or at least the thorn in our side.

A novel idea might be to ask people what they mean by the phrase before we jump to conclusions and indicate we are not a safe person to talk to. Hill offers what he means by this phrase. In the introduction he mentions that “gay” or “homosexual” is an adjective because the main idea is the noun, Christian. That is his identity. Homosexuality is part of his life. A stubborn, painful part of his life.

In his prelude he focuses on Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6.

“Washed and waiting. That is my life- my identity as one who is forgiven and spiritually cleansed and my struggle as one who perseveres with a frustrating thorn in the flesh, looking forward to what God has promised to do.”

He’s a Christian with a struggle. We all have a struggle. His makes him feel like “damaged goods”, something he mentions periodically in this book. I want to take this seriously as a pastor. To continually remind someone who feels like damaged goods that they need to repent for this disordered desires is like rubbing salt in the wound. They already feel damaged, broken, like a misfit. Some seem to want to exacerbate this loneliness and isolation even more. They know they are messed up- they need to know they are loved by a holy God.

It is hard to think that all your life will be an attempt to struggle well, not to actually succeed. Most homosexuals don’t experience a change of sexual attraction. This is due to the remnant of sin. Hill paints a picture of this struggle as he tells his story throughout the book. Many of us conservative Christians would be wise to listen. Not to excuse, but to exercise empathy. Too often we act like we’ll catch a disease.

Image result for island of misfit toysAt times it would be easy to dismiss him. Some of us have also felt profound loneliness for extended periods of time. Some of us have felt like misfits for most of our lives. We identify with the Island of Misfit Toys. He’s not saying only homosexuals experience this profound loneliness. Only that they do in fact experience it.

In A Story-Shaped Life he explains why he resists his same sex desires. He accepts the Story, not just some texts. I mean the story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. Those texts reflect the creation. We were not designed for same sex relationships. They are part of the fall brought about by sin. We all have disordered desires, and disordered sexual desires. Sin is living out of accord with how God made us to live. The Story includes redemption too. He’s a forgiven sinner, not a condemned sinner. He was washed, justified as Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 6. It is not our sin that defines us, but Christ in our justification.

“I abstain from homosexual behavior because of the power of that scriptural story.”

And so should we abstain from our deviant sexual desires. This story is a balm for our often raw soul.

“The gospel resists the fallen inclinations of Christian believers.”

While not explicitly calling his same sex desires sin, he frequently uses similar phrases. He doesn’t delight in them, or ask others to delight in them. He groans because it is difficult to be faithful in the face of such desires. But this is his goal, and the purpose of the community. These desires are an unwanted burden.

He explores Lewis’ comments on temptation from Mere Christianity.

“Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. … A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know that it would have been like an hour later.” C.S. Lewis

Before his extended reflection on loneliness, he has an intermission focused on Henri Nouwen. He kept his homosexuality a secret shared only with a few of his closest friends. He lived faithfully to the biblical sexual ethic. He was wracked with self-doubt, despair, loneliness and insecurity. In desperate need of intimate relationships, he seemed to also keep them at arms length fearing they would turn into something they shouldn’t. Here is one of the push-pulls of homosexuality: the need for healthy same sex relationships but the fear of sinful attraction. Like Nouwen, Hill longs to feel at home in the Father’s embrace.

In The End of Loneliness Hill focuses on the need for community. This is the very thing most people with sexual disorders fear. They don’t want to be exposed, revealed. In the gay community there is no need to keep your attractions and desires secret. This is part of the big attraction- feeling like you fit in. The Christian community feels threatening to homosexuals, and I fear we don’t help ease this fear. It is often a place of hardship, particularly since you likely can’t find someone to share the rest of your life with. It’s not just that you haven’t found a spouse, but that your desires run in the wrong direction.

The longing for love is human. But in this case it is disordered, bent and twisted. One can begin to curse the longing that reflects our humanity.

“They are trading what seems to be the only satisfying relationships they have or could have for ones that will prove to be at once more painful (because of all the myriad effects of sin) and most life giving.”

In Thou Art Lightning and Love Hill introduces us to Gerard Manley Hopkins. This section included a rather uncomfortable quote from Frederick Buechner about Hopkins. A quote about “a beautiful boy in the choir” and “some street child” when moves closer to pedophilia. Yet Hopkins struggled to remain faithful despite his isolation and despair. Hopkins eventually saw this struggle as part of God’s loving purposes.

There is also a quote from Dallas Willard which distinguishes between temptation and sin: “But temptation also is not wrong, though it should not be willfully entered.” This seems out of place with the rest of his comments on same sex desire, so I’m a bit confused. It is temptation to sin, and must be rejected. We are tempted by our inordinate desire, or desire for something inherently sinful. Jesus was also tempted, though not by inordinate desire. He was tempted by others to commit sin. This the splitting of a theological hair: is it sinful to have a sinful desire? Or is the sin in letting the desire bear fruit? This is not a topic Hill takes up, which is unfortunate.

At the end he refers to Martin Hallett, a celibate homosexual Christian. Hallett speaks of his sexual orientation as a “gift”. Not that homosexual is a gift in itself, but that the struggle was a gift “because, under God’s sovereignty, it can lead to blessings.” In other words, God works good out of it that He couldn’t work in any other way. As John Newton noted, there is nothing given that is not needful and nothing needful that is withheld. God uses this struggle to humble, and to reveal the greatness of His grace and redemption.

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I keep your word.

75 I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Ps. 119

Because this is a book, and a short one, of reflections it is not a book of theological exposition. Some may criticize it for that. There are other books for that. This is a book explaining why & how Wesley Hill struggles with his desire rather than following his desire. It is a window into the struggle for those of us who are heterosexual. You could treat this as the conversation you need to have but don’t have a friend with whom you feel comfortable having it.

CavWife and I both have had friends who punted on the faith to live in homosexual relationships. We have friends who left families too, to satisfy the sexual desire they told practically no one about. Some of us may have suspected, but there were no conversations about the struggle until they gave it up. I wish they’d shared this with friends. Maybe it would have turned out differently. But maybe it isn’t too late, God may grant repentance.

 

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I read this as a son, and a pastor.

My mother has Alzheimer’s Disease which is a form of dementia. As a pastor, I have had and will have some older members with dementia. A wise pastor won’t stick his head in the sand. Even if you pastor a young congregation, they will have parents who are diagnosed with this horrible disease.

Into this, Dr. John Dunlop wrote Finding Grace in the Face of Dementia. He is a Geriatrics physician. He is too familiar with dementia as a son and a doctor.  He writes as a physician with great bedside manner. He’s informative, and gentle. He’s honest but not despairing. He sees God’s sovereignty in a way that calls us to trust His character, His goodness as we suffer.

“All shall work together for good; everything is needful [necessary] that he sends, nothing can be needful [necessary] that he withholds.” John Newton

When God brings dementia into our lives, He has a good purpose. Much of this has to do with trusting Him more fully, finding strength in our union with Christ. His purpose is to mature us, not destroy us. That is how the Enemy wants to use dementia.

Theology bookends this book in many ways, and permeates it. He gets into the nuts and bolts of dementia at a lay level. He addresses diagnosis and whether or not the disease can be prevented and how it can be treated. He addresses both what it is like to have dementia in its various stages, as well as what it is like to be a caregiver in various stages. He offers some helpful hints for caregivers.

He views those who suffer as image bearers which is counter-cultural. In our culture’s human (objective)/person (subjective) dichotomy those who suffer from dementia can be seen as no longer of value since they have no apparent sense of personhood. Dunlop encourages us to remember that they remain image bearers and therefore have value despite diminished capacity. He speaks of some ways to respect that dignity even as the disease strips them of dignity.

He does have a chapter on the church. Dementia isolates people, particularly the caregiver. I’ve seen this with my father as his world shrunk to match my mother’s shrinking world. Churches should be engaged providing familiar faces for relief and encouragement. Faith can also be sustained, or comfort provided by listening to the pastor’s sermons (a familiar voice) or Scripture read by a friend or loved one. Songs from worship can be played ad infinitum and enjoyed by the patient (as the caregiver returns to the early years of parenting).

The toughest chapter is the last, End-of-Life Issues. It was also the most helpful for me in light of my mother’s recent admission to a memory-care facility. She became more than my father could handle. Her world continues to shrink. She has a terminal disease. That shapes, or should, how other diseases are treated. We should keep in mind that “the patient’s quality of life as perceived by the patient may be far better than that perceived by loved ones or the medical establishment.” We project our fears as a person without dementia upon them. None of us would like to be a baby again, but babies don’t mind being babies. People with dementia may not have an awareness of all they have lost, but enjoy life much like infants and toddlers do.

He addresses feeding tubes. They are used because the patient has stopped eating. They often cause more problems than they prevent or address. They often “stop eating because they are dying; they don’t die because they stop eating.” We have to make sure we are doing what is in the patient’s best interest, not ours. There are times to prolong life, but as the disease gets more severe you don’t want to be as aggressive and put them thru a long, lingering death artificially extended. It is heart-breaking and hard.

Dr. Dunlop has provided a good resource for pastors, elders and caregivers (as well as potential victims of this family of diseases). It is succinct and not overly technical. There is a strong focus on how God is graciously at work through the experience of dementia. I found it very helpful, and one of my congregants who read it has as well.

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