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Posts Tagged ‘John Newton’


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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I’ve said it before, I’m glad Sinclair Ferguson retired.

I miss listening to his sermons, so I wish he hadn’t retired too. But his retirement has meant a steadier stream of great books. One of those books is From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible.

“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Matthew 4

This is not a new book such much as a revised and expanded version of Handle with Care! which was released in 1982. It was written to fulfill a commitment he’d made to provide a book on the Trinity. Unable to prepare that manuscript, they were willing to receive Handle with Care! Hopefully we will see that book on the Trinity some day.

In some ways, From the Mouth of God reminds me of Kevin DeYoung’s Taking God at His Word. They cover much of the same territory. Their styles are different due, in part, to differences in age and cultural background. Both are very good books and worth reading. Both are relatively short and accessible to lay people. I intend you use both in the teacher training, and officer training, that I am in the process creating and revising respectively.

As you might realize from the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections: trusting the Bible, reading the Bible and applying the Bible. The middle section is the longest. Unfortunately the section on application is the shortest. As one who can struggle with this aspect of sermon preparation, I would have liked this to be explored more thoroughly.

His opening chapter It Is Written covers the Bible as God’s self-revelation. He brings our depravity as expressed in a darkened understanding into the equation. Ferguson uses passages like Hebrews 1 to affirm that the Bible is historical, verbal, progressive and cumulative, and Christ-centered. He discusses the dual authorship of Scripture as an expression of the doctrine of concurrence. He also covers the doctrine of accommodation, that God speaks in such a way that we can understand. The second chapter, Getting It Together, focuses on questions of the canon. This includes the OT canon and Jesus’ view of that canon. He addresses inerrancy and infallibility, as well as finality. Inerrancy is often misunderstood. For instance, it includes the lies of men. It accurately reports those lies in some historical accounts. Faithfully communicating those falsehoods and errors does not mean the Bible itself errs.

He wraps up the first section with Is It God’s Word?, which evaluates the claims of Scripture to be God’s word. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures also illumines the Scriptures for us. We see the depth of our dependence upon the work of the Spirit in knowing God.

Ferguson opens the section on reading the Bible with an example of how not to read it: allegory. Christians have struggled with how to read, and therefore understand, the Bible. The priest of my youth told us “Don’t read the Bible, you’ll get it wrong.” And many do. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t Do-It-Yourself. We have a responsibility, and need, to read the Bible for ourselves. We aren’t saved by implicit belief in what the priest or pastor knows & believes. We must explicitly believe saving truths, and we know them through the Scriptures.

Explaining Paul’s statements, Ferguson discusses rightly handling the Word of God, thinking in the hopes the God grants understanding (2 Tim. 2:7). He then turns to the Westminster Confession of Faith to explain some principles for interpretation. He contrasts this with the medieval church’s 5-fold interpretation.

In Keys, he notes the 5 keys to interpreting Scripture: context, Christ, the unfolding drama, and gospel grammar. These keys help us by helping us grasp the historical and literary context, the redemptive-historical context, its connection with Christ and reminding us that the indicatives (facts) of the gospel precede the imperatives (commands) so we live by grace. In Prose, Poetry, Wisdom, and Prophecy focuses on the different literary genres in the Old Testament. He briefly provides the basics needed to understand each of these genres. He includes brief examples of how to interpret each. Similarly in Gospels, Epistles, and Visions Ferguson looks at the genres in the New Testament. In For Example, he interprets the book of Ruth. He repeats one of the keys he noted earlier: “in reading Old Testament narrative we must always have in mind the way in which the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in terms of God’s covenant promise working out through deep conflict to establish his kingdom in Christ.”

Ferguson moves to application with What’s the Use?. Here he returns to 2 Timothy 3 to help us understand the use of the Scriptures in making us wise for salvation. This chapter will find its way into my officer training.

In Seed Needs Soil he addresses the condition of hearts that hear the gospel. This is one of the few places I disagree with Ferguson. It is a minor disagreement. I believe the parable is told to explain the different reactions to the ministry of the Word for the disciples. I don’t think it is meant for us to be self-reflective as if we could prepare our hearts. Still, he does a good job explaining the nature of those hearts.

He concludes with Speaking Practically, which is about how to implement the material you have read. He discusses the role of discipline to develop a routine, and a method for reading the Bible. We have to actually read the Bible, consistently and repeatedly, to bear great fruit. Each of the first 5 years or so that I was a Christian (until I went to seminary) I read the Bible through once a year. I gained a good working knowledge of the Bible as a result. Unfortunately it was the NIV, and many key phrases in my head don’t match up with the ESV. Even after 20 years in ministry, while reading the Bible for my own devotion I continue to see new connections points (I just read Exodus 22:28, noting its connection to NT texts about honoring the king).

Though Ferguson is done, the book isn’t. He includes two brief appendices. The first is John Murray on The Guidance of the Holy Spirit, and John Newton’s letter on Divine Guidance.

This is a good book that leaves you wanting more. I recommend it for all those interested in teaching others, and people interested in why they should trust the Scriptures and how to read them.

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I’ve been reading Jared Wilson’s blog on and off since his days in TN. I’ve read some of his books and found them profitable. So when the opportunity arose to read & review his latest, The Imperfect Disciple, I took advantage.

Chapter 1 begins with a quote from John Newton which sets the tone for what is to come: “In short, I am a riddle to myself, a heap of inconsistence.” This book is a neo-Calvinist version of Yaconelli’s Messy Spirituality. As Wilson notes in his introduction, this is for the average Christian who just plain struggles and feels like a total loser when reading books on discipleship, if they ever dare to. The focus here is certainly not “try harder and get your act together”. The emphasis is that God works immeasurably beyond what you manage to do because He’s rich in grace and you are united to Christ. How’s that for a nutshell?

“A message of grace will attract people but a culture of grace will keep them.” This is at least the 2nd book he’s used this in. But it is a great quote.

Jared Wilson’s style is decidedly in the popular vein. It is conversational, and not concerned with sentence and all that jazz. Each chapter begins with “My gospel is…” followed by a story that generally doesn’t portray him in a positive light. He’s not looking down at you (us). He is not the Tony Robbins of discipleship (or the David Platt/Paul Washer intent on making you feel guilty for being an ordinary person).

He addresses many of the ordinary disciplines or means of grace from a different point of view than usual. He uses some unusual terminology at times. One of the strengths is that he focuses on the reality simul justus et peccator, at the same time we are just and sinners. We do not, and cannot get our act together this side of death or Jesus’ return. We will continue to struggle with sin (including sloth), temptation and spiritual drift. In talking about this in chapter 1, he addresses some people’s tendency to blame their spiritual problems on their church upbringing. This is particularly common among progressives who grew up in more fundamentalist or even evangelical churches. While our family and church backgrounds may have been messed up and wounded us, we were all born in Adam and are sinners. We are all messed up even with others messing us up more. We never escape Romans 7, yet we always have the hope expressed in Romans 8.

“So while the storm of Romans 7 rages inside of us, the truth of Romans 8 has us safe and sound. Within the spiritual ecosystem of God’s saving sovereignty, in fact, our struggle is like the little squall stirred up in a snow globe.”

In the second chapter he calls discipleship followship. We follow Jesus and help others follow Jesus. This is true, but we also learn and teach others and are therefore … disciples. Often we can make it difficult, he says, for others to follow Jesus by confusing wounds and sins. Both persist, but the gospel addresses them in different ways. We forgive those who wound us, and God heals us with the balm of the gospel. Sins, which sometimes flow from wounds, are forgiven and God calls us to repentance and self-denial at times.

The third chapter focuses on beholding Jesus glory as opposed to seeing Him as a life coach or self-help advisor. Jesus changes us as we behold His glory (though this is not the only way He changes us). We are on a quest to discover glory, often in the wrong places like porn, wealth accumulation etc. I look for glory in sports. Not my glory but the athletes’. So he encourages us to look to Jesus and His unchanging glory.

He then addresses time in the Scripture to hear the rhythm of the gospel. We are immersed in the rhythm of our culture and need to be renewed by the rhythm of the gospel in Scripture. It isn’t just the details, but beginning to grasp the big picture of Scripture. It took him some time to get to the point of the chapter, listening to the rhythm. This another way God transforms us as He renews our minds.

There is another rhythm he mentions next, that of spilling your guts: prayer. We live in a busy culture and often suffer from hurry sickness. We don’t have time to pray (or read, or …). Prayer is how we process His words to us, and our circumstances (hopefully in light of His Word). Even better, Jesus lives forever to intercede for us in order to save us to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25).

Then Wilson discusses a much-neglected aspect of discipleship in our culture: community. While we are personally saved, we are joined to Jesus into a community, the Body of Christ. We need one another to grow into maturity. Sanctification is not a self-help, or do-it-yourself, project. Community is also where self-denial, humility, considering the needs of others becomes necessary as we follow Jesus.

“The Christian life must be walked within the encouragement, edification, and accountability of Christian community. … To abide in Christ necessitates embracing the body of Christ as God’s plan for the Christian life.”

In a strange turn of events, he puts forth “Nine Irrefutable Laws of Followship”. He throws out some biblical imperatives that are part of healthy Christian living: be loving, be joyful, be peaceful, be patient, be kind, be good, be faithful, be gentle, and be self-controlled. This is a description of what Jesus is making you because it is a pretty good description of Jesus. These are also the fruit of the Spirit.

He then moves into our union with Christ. We are not who we will be, and still struggle with something of an identity crisis. There is much we don’t like about ourselves. Thankfully, our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). In the midst of this he talks about idolatry via Genesis 22. We lay down all our idols to pick up Jesus. Our idols can’t make us what we want to be, only Jesus can. Our idols can’t give us life (they steal it), only Jesus can.

“You may see yourself as worthless and faithless, but God never has to look for your righteousness, because since you have been raised with Christ and since Christ is seated at God’s right hand, your holiness is also seated at his right hand.”

He then moves into a discussion of suffering. We often feel forgotten or abandoned by God when we suffer. Jared is honest about a deep, suicidal depression he experienced. There is no pit too deep for Him to reach us, but He also lifts us higher than any idol can or than we can imagine going. There is grace in the pit, and grace lifts us to God’s presence in heaven.

“It’s true that sometimes God doesn’t become our holy hope until God becomes our only hope.”

The final chapter, Lurv Wins, is rooted in a scene from Annie Hall and reminds me of Rob Bell’s book. He never mentions Bell’s book, and the content isn’t the same as Rob’s book. He’s not advocating “Christian Universalism” but talking about heaven. The point of heaven is Jesus. He’s not an add-on, a bonus or merely a means to the end. What we experience there will be more than words can express. In Scripture, when people go to heaven they are overwhelmed, struck down as if dead and filled with dread. Our hope is not an earthly hope, but one that can only be satisfied in the unmediated presence of God. Earthly hopes keep unraveling, but that one will be greater than we can imagine.

“Grace is all-sufficient for glory. Grace doesn’t just go all the way down to our weakness and suffering; it goes all the way up to our deliverance, all the way up to the throne of God, where our Savior is seated at the right hand of the Father and where, because we have been raised with him, and seated with him in the heavenly places, we also have a place.”

While this, and the book, is generally good, at some points this casual or conversational style makes for some “sloppy” theology. One is something I noticed in Unparalleled as well regarding justification. “It’s not just that God wipes our sinful state clean (justification); he also writes onto the slate of our heart the perfect righteousness of Christ (imputation). (pp. 166)” Actually the first is “pardon” and justification includes both pardon and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

He also hit one of my pet peeves: “He predestined this very circumstance. If I believe that, I can be patient.” (pp. 160) The word he wants is ordained. Predestination refers to salvation/damnation, not ordinary providence. Just one of those things that bugs me since technical terms exist for a reason and sloppy usage ends up changing the meaning and makes theological discourse more difficult (as Sproul notes in a book I am currently reading to review). While not an academic book, I’d hope he could communicate the proper use of technical terms.

He also makes a false distinction between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant on page 122. “The old covenant was made with God’s chosen people, and the new covenant is made with God’s called-out people.” Was not Abraham called out in Genesis 12? Was not Israel called out of Egypt? Was not Israel called out from the nations to be a people of God’s own possession? Are not we chosen (Eph. 1, 1 Peter 1 for starters)? The word ecclesia, which he might be basing this on, is used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, to refer to the assembly of the Israel. Israel was …. the church! The OT was largely written to the community of faith called Israel, which so often struggled to believe. The NT was largely written to the community of faith called the church which was grafted onto the vine of the True Israel- Jesus.

Another head scratcher was on page 40: “We are idiots when it comes to the Sermon on the Mount.” I won’t get into the nature of the beatitudes and the 3 uses of the law at this point (he could use some brushing up there too), but just the use of idiots to refer to us. It strikes me as contrary to another part of the Sermon on the Mount.

Being a Baptist, he also leaves out the sacraments as a part of the rhythm of grace God has given to us. Baptism begins our discipleship (based on the grammar of the Great Commission). But we are imperfect disciples, and that includes Jared. His book isn’t perfect but it is a very good and helpful book. It is worth reading and is accessible to those who are struggling with the fact they are quite imperfect.

[I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of review.]

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