Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Newton’


We as an assembly wanted not simply theological clarity, but also pastoral wisdom as we engage with a massive cultural shift. At least that is what I wanted. I felt like I was ill-prepared to lovingly engage people who struggle with same-sex attraction. I’ve had friends who suffered secretly, until they left their spouses. Some of them I suspected, and some I didn’t. I’ve only had one congregant “come out” to me as bisexual. I should have engaged this person more on how it impacted marriage for them. I didn’t want to open a can of worms I felt ill-prepared to handle.

The Report notes that such pastoral care requires special consideration. We do need to communicate that all people are made in the image of God, and all Christians are being renewed in that image. Our various struggles are not a denial of this, but part of the process. Faithful discipleship is possible, even if people struggle with same-sex attraction. Life is about more than sexual attraction, though the world seemingly wants to reduce us to our sexual desires. The Spirit produces the fruit of character in our lives which impact how one experiences and expresses sexual attraction.

The Report addresses two common errors as we consider sanctification. These two errors reflect the “Already-Not Yet” tension that we live in as Christians. There are elements of our salvation that we have already received and experience. There are other elements that our salvation that we have not yet received and experience. When we push too much of the “not yet” into the “already” we have an over-realized eschatology (expectations set too high). When we deny too much of the “already” and delay it for the “not yet” we have an under-realized eschatology (expectations set too low).

The error of some Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire has been to tie faithfulness to the elimination of homosexual temptation (or even the development of heterosexual desire) as though if Christians really did enough therapy, had enough faith, or repented sufficiently, God would deliver them in some final and complete way, changing their orientation. This perspective reflects a sort of over-realized eschatology—a view that what we will be finally and fully in the new creation will be realized in that way in the present life. Against such a view, our Confession reminds us that even in the regenerate, the corruption of sin remains in this life (WCF6.5). The task for believers is to pursue faithfulness and obedience in this life, holding in view our new creation selves into which we are progressively, though often with many fits and starts, being conformed.

Some expect same-sex attraction to end or at least become so rare as to be seemingly insignificant. This is often stated with the other side of the coin, the development of heterosexual desire. God can and does do this. But He doesn’t do it for every person who repents and believes. Have all your temptations been removed? I doubt it.

This is a push back on the Exodus International model of ministering to homosexuals. Revoice was also a push back, but not as tempered as this one. They seem to have gone to the other extreme (an under-realized eschatology that expects little/no change). Whether or not a person continues to experience same-sex attraction is largely under the providence of God. What a person does with those desires is a matter of their personal sanctification. Corruption of all kinds remains in us, and we are to pursue faithfulness in the midst of that.

The Report then pushes back on Revoice’s pessimism regarding change. It really is hard to maintain balance, and that only through the gospel. We are not to lapse into legalism to fight pessimism. Nor are we to lapse into antinomianism to fight the unrealistic expectations of an over-realized eschatology.

The error of other Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire is to treat it as a sort of fixed reality that has no malleability or capacity for change whatsoever. In its most extreme forms, this reflects our broader culture’s notions of one’s sexual orientation being a completely fixed reality—contending that there is no sense in which sexual desires can meaningfully change over time. The problem with this under-realized eschatology is that in its attempts to push back against views of change that overstate the Christian’s sense of having “arrived,”it suggests that there is no journey to take at all and no progress to be expected. However, the Biblical perspective is that the Holy Spirit uses repentance with the ordinary means of grace to advance Christian understanding, godly desires, and Biblical obedience. If a believer struggles with habitual sexual sin, we should expect to see real meaningful change in their behaviors as they repent and mortify their sin, and pursue holiness in aggressive, practical ways. If believers are routinely tempted along similar lines over the course of life, they should expect that the less they give in to that temptation and establish deep habits of holiness, over time the pull of their hearts toward that sin should lessen, or even be drowned out by the expulsive power of a greater affection for Christ.

We are to repent of on-going sin. Making use of the ordinary means of grace we should expect to see some measure of growth. A lack of growth (not perfection) MAY be a sign of a lack of godly disciplines. But the flesh is stubborn and does oppose all attempts at godliness.

Pastors should regularly communicate the Already-Not Yet tension clearly. It is not just for people struggling with same-sex attraction. While there is generally no immediate deliverance, such sinful desires need to be mortified, starved. The goal, unlike that expressed by some I’ve talked with, is not heterosexuality, but Christlikeness. We will become like Christ, when He appears. Until then we purify ourselves. We have not arrived, and will not in this earthly life.

While all this seems obvious, it would not seem so based on the conversations PCA pastors were having on this issue with regards to sanctification. The Report gives us good counsel.

Biblical Identity

We all have a sense of who we are, who we believe ourselves to be. The Report points us to the redemptive-historical narrative to understand our identity. We have an ontological identity as being made in the image of God by God as dependent upon Him. We are made male or female, which means these are not simply cultural constructions (we can, and do, socially/culturally construct what being a man or woman means). In footnote 53, referencing Ryan Peterson they say “we have both created identities which are indelible, central, and come from God, and constructed identities, which are our more malleable attempts to interpret our particular experiences and relationships in the world.”

We also have a phenomenological identity, how we experience ourselves as sinners in a sinful world. We should be honest about our sin and misery, the ways in which the Fall is part of us. This is our identity as sinner (alcoholic, glutton etc.) and sinned against (sexual abuse survivor/victim, oppressed minority …). These are real, but not our primary identity.

Our primary identity as Christians is our teleological identity received through our union with Christ. Who we are “in Christ” is the most important part of our identity. This doesn’t over-ride our phenomenological identity, as if we were no longer sinners but is of greater importance and therefore should be our emphasis.

The Report notes its limitations in scope in unpacking what it means to be in Christ. It makes some summary statements. We are justified in Christ, receiving His perfect righteousness as our very own. We also receive the other half of the double grace, sanctification. We don’t get one without the other but receive the whole Christ and the wholeness of salvation despite the reality of the already-not yet tension.

Sexual Identity

The Report asks how we are to think of our sexual identity in light of the redemptive-historical identities. Regardless of our sexual identities, we are ontologically made in the image of God and under His authority. All people have dignity and should be shown respect as image bearers. The Report rightly declares there should be no second-class citizens based on particular struggles. While acknowledging the reality of intersex, they affirm that we should not otherwise deny the reality of gender as rooted in creation.

However, we must also acknowledge the ways in which our sexual identities are shaped by the sins of others against us as well as the ways in which the Fall has shaped our biological and social development. Some experiences of sexual desire may come unbidden as a result of sins committed against a person, and while sinful, should be treated with great pastoral care for the person who has been victimized and sinned against. The origins and development of sexual desire remain complex and, in many ways, mysterious. It is possible to conceive of the experience of same-sex attraction as simultaneously a part of the remaining corruption of original sin as well as the misery of living in a fallen world, one of the ways our bodies themselves groan for redemption (Rom. 8:22-23; WCF6.6; WLC17-19). For many of these Christians, the burden of shame is already great and what is especially needed from pastors and mature believers is our preaching and living out of the grace of the gospel that frees us all from guilt and shame.

The sins of others against us can shape us profoundly, including our sexual identity. They are not saying that everyone who is homosexual has been sexually abused, or neglect. They are saying that how such experiences interact with our original corruption is not uniform and therefore mysterious. These can form and distort our sexual identities. Our original corruption also forms and distorts our sexual identities. There is, therefore, no one cause fits all understanding of homosexuality and same-sex desire in all its permutations.

Pastors need to keep this in mind in their preaching as well as in their pastoral counseling. Dealing with these issues touch on issues of great shame. We need to interact in a way that is shaped by the grace of God for sinners in Christ.

Terminology

They move from identity into a discussion of terminology and articulate four principles:

  1. “The language we use to describe reality matters. Our language and terminology should seek to faithfully and helpfully articulate the truths of our doctrine.”
  2. “Language itself is a secondary issue relative to the doctrine it expresses. We can disagree about particular language.”
  3. “We must recognize that the meaning of terms changes over time and that definitions may not be shared across different groups of people.”
  4. “Issues surrounding sexual identity… cannot be reduced to language alone.”

The Report is pushing us to make sure we understand one another instead of relying on the use, or avoidance, of key words and phrases. We should seek to understand how they are using the words or phrases instead of importing our understanding on them, typically with judgment involved. We should remember “how persons express themselves is not finally determinative of their identity.”

Moving into particular terms they apply these principles. “Gay” and “gay Christian” can be used with different meanings, and may be appropriate in some settings. The Report notes that “same-sex attraction” is usually associated with the “ex-gay” movement and puts up unnecessary barriers in evangelism to homosexuals. The Report doesn’t see the term “gay” as neutral, however, and ordinarily cautions against its use. We need to be aware of our audience if/when we use it.

As a result, the term “gay Christian” is open to a number of interpretations. In terms of identity, this would not be clear or precise in expressing our understanding as Reformed people. But a mission-minded person may identify as gay even as they affirm the Lordship of Christ over their sexuality. The risk of syncretism is noted. Here is the wise conclusion:

Given this conclusion, how should we respond to fellow believers in our churches who may use such language? First, we ought not start from the assumption that they are being unfaithful or living in active rebellion to God. Rather, in the context of established relationships, pastors and leaders in the church ought to ask questions and seek to understand each individual’s story. Why do they use that language? Have they thought through the relative benefits and dangers? Noting the range of possible meanings of terms like gay and gay Christian, we would do well to seek understanding before imparting advice. In practical and plain terms, the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline.

This paragraph has the strong echo of John Newton, and others who seek to preserve the unity of the Church. It is hard not to see Keller’s influence here.

The Report moves to the language of orientation. It notes that “insofar as the term orientation carries with it a set of assumptions about the nature of that experience that is unbiblical, then the terminology may require qualification or even rejection in some circumstances.” Use of the term seems to be a capitulation to those who seek to normalize sin.

Singleness, Friendship, and Community

Many who experience same-sex attraction have not found churches to be particularly hospitable places. The words may not be directed at them specifically, but how we preach about it can make a person feel unsafe in revealing their temptations. Sometimes we chase them into a more welcoming community that begins to affirm their sin instead of proclaiming the gospel to them.

Those who stay in our churches can feel incredibly lonely, and this can crush them further. There is a challenge here for us to be clear on sin, but also compassionate to sinners; to be communities that welcome sinners of all kinds. This means not simply welcoming them to sit and watch, but to be active and important participants in our communities. Here we hit a statement many will find controversial.

“Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church.”

This does not sit well with those who think that homosexuality automatically disqualifies one from office. This can take two forms. One that I’ve seen in a number of forums is that if they were truly repentant they wouldn’t experience same sex attraction anymore. As The Report noted earlier, this is distorted and anti-gospel view of repentance. The other form I’ve seen is that to be “a one woman man” rules out one without heterosexual attraction.

This sentence has been brought up as evidence that the PCA is sliding down the slope. This sentence is met with angst on the part of those who want to see pastors and elders (and deacons) who experience same-sex attraction removed from office.

We must note that the persons in question “display the requisite Christian maturity.” They evidence genuine faith as far as we can tell. Due to self-control, they are not controlled by their same-sex attraction but live a faithful, chaste life before the face of God. Leading a gay lifestyle would in fact disqualify one from office. Experiencing same-sex attraction should not. Sin actual, not original, is the proper subject of church discipline. Transgressions, not corruption, is the proper subject of church discipline. This is not 1984 and we are not the “thought police”. To deny the sinfulness of homosexuality would be a proper subject of church discipline since that is false teaching. This is not Minority Report, and there are no precogs letting us know you’d sin (transgress), if you could.

This subject, however, is dynamite that could create not simply discussion but dissension. I don’t want to underestimate that potential. I’ve seen people within and outside of the PCA quote this sentence. If anything is going to prove controversial in The Report, this is it.

So, in light of the fact that people with same-sex attraction who are maturing should contribute to the life of the church we should expect them to cultivate healthy relationships. Unfortunately, some connected with Revoice are proposing “celibate partnerships” in an attempt to affirm the biblical sexual ethic and also experience exclusive, romantic relationships. This is most unwise. You cannot scoop fire into your lap and expect to not be burned. The Report notes these proposed relationships to “be unwise and inconsistent with the depictions of deep same-sex relationships in Scripture, which are instead case in the context of familial or philial relations.” Jonathan and David were like brothers, not lovers. Let us not think it was some Brokeback Mountain kind of thing. The Report notes they make a category mistake: “it seeks to have aspects of romance or marriage without its fullness, instead of rightly rooting this type of deeply caring, same-sex relationship in its proper category of family or friendship.”

We should be providing family to people who are single, and people who are same-sex attracted. We shouldn’t see them as people to be fixed but as people who need to love and be loved in healthy, biblically appropriate ways.

The Report than addresses vows of celibacy. WLC 139 warns against such things. Such vows are entangling and limiting for future options. No one knows what the future holds, and a person may develop sufficient attraction to marry a person of the opposite sex. In this way it pushes back against the “vows of celibacy” some have made and some churches encouraged for membership.

WLC 138 informs us that people who pursue chastity may be considered continent. They certainly have an indefinite, and possibly lifelong call to singleness. This pushes back against the opposite notion that the “cure” for same-sex attraction is heterosexual marriage (or biblical marriage). This seems to not “give proper regard to the rights and dignity of both parties in the marriage relationship.” No one wants to be a beard, and wonder why their spouse displays so little sexual interest in them. I’ve had friends live this, and wish it on no one. As Christians, we have a higher view of marriage than that.

So we find that in terms of pastoral care, this Report continues to pull both sides toward the middle. It offers counter-balance to both sides recognizing that controversy tends to move us farther from truth and toward extremes.

Addendum: Here is a Christopher Yuan lecture on temptation, sanctification & identity.

 

Read Full Post »


A Life of Gospel Peace: A Biography of Jeremiah Burroughs - Kindle ...Conflict is no stranger to Christians. Or pastors.

The gospel is not only central to restoring relationships broken by conflict, but is also intended to be central to the process of expressing disagreement and debate.

There is a reason that Phillip Simpson’s biography of Jeremiah Burroughs is called A Life of Gospel Peace. His attempts to communicate the necessity of the gospel in conflict, not just after conflict, is a major theme in the book. Does the gospel matter to how you disagree with other? It should.

In 1638 Burroughs was asked to write a preface to Richard Sibbes’ A Christian’s Portion. Sibbes had died three years earlier, but was a very influential pastor, and Thomas Goodwin pushed to have this work published. Sibbes sought peace with brothers and this made a deep impression on Burroughs. Seeking peace didn’t mean holding convictions loosely.

“Factions breed factions.” Richard Sibbes

In his preface to this posthumous work, Burroughs wrote the following:

“Men run so far one from another, some to one side and others to the other side of the circumference, that while they stand diametrically opposed, they leave the truth behind them in the center. Some will give too much to this or that ordinance, because others give too little, because others give too much. It is a spirit of opposition that causes division. Two spheres will but touch in a point; and so when men are swollen with pride and anger, they gather up one from another, and resolve not to adhere so much as in one point.”

This is one of my CavCorollaries: conflict tends to drive both parties to more extreme views. He uses the image of a circle. The disputants are on opposite sides of the circumference. As a result, neither ends up possessing the center of the circles, which represents the truth. One person’s perceived departure results in the other person’s opposite departure.

We see much of this in the discussions of legalism and antinomianism. They are both departures from the truth. The presence of one drives people to the other. Rather than stand on the gospel, people tend to move toward the opposite error. The problem is that often we don’t see ourselves actually doing that. We think we are standing for the truth. We are, part of it. When we put forward part of the truth as the whole truth we deny the truth.

Pride and anger flood our minds so we don’t see, and argue, clearly. Passion turns to emotion, and “truth” becomes more important than love (instead of equally important). This factionalism is a work of the flesh according to Paul in Galatians 5. We tend to forget we have indwelling sin in conflict, while reminding our opponent of their indwelling sin.

Simpson devotes a chapter to the long-running debates on church government during the Westminster Assembly. Burroughs was a dissenter (along with his friend Thomas Goodwin among others) arguing for Independency or a congregational form of government. In the course of this chapter we see this polarization at work. Members from each side began to neglect the commonality and stressed the differences. Eventually they were misrepresenting the differences.

The mission from Parliament was unity in 4 areas: one confession of faith, one catechism, one book of worship and one form of government. The disagreement was on which form of government. There was basic agreement on the others. Yet, Independents feared that a General Assembly would function as another form of episcopacy with dictates from on high, and lording it over the local congregation. They minimized the reality of representation in the General Assembly. The Presbyterians feared that Independency would open the door for the growing number of sects to find a place within the Church of England. They seemed to ignore that the Confession and catechisms would rule out such sects.

In the Westminster Assembly this protracted debate did get hot at times. Burroughs and others were able to maintain relationships with others on the other side of the debate. Burroughs and some of the Independents did favor fraternal associations.

The Apologists, as Burroughs and his cohorts became known, wrote:

“We knew and considered that it was the second-blow that makes the quarrel, and that the beginning of strife would have been as the breaking in of waters…”

It is always the second guy who gets caught. They were trying to uphold peace but were perceived as having created the quarrel by responding to the first blow. That was their perception, so it seems. They pleaded for toleration on this matter. I’m not sure how this could have functioned in light of Parliament’s expressed wishes. But understandably, the Apologist didn’t want to flee to another country again because their views have one again been ruled illegal.

As I read this, I wondered what the Presbyterianism they so feared actually looked like. Simpson could have been clearer in this area. I wonder if they were arguing against a straw man; a form of Presbyterianism unrecognizable not only to me (an American) but to their fellow members of the Assembly.

The rift seemed beyond repair. “For Burroughs, the way godly ministers behaved toward those with whom they disagreed was as important as the issue being debated.” Oh that we would also have similar sentiments. We can be so driven by “truth” that we forget love. It comes about winning, being right, instead of preserving the bond of unity by truth and love in the Spirit.

The next chapter focuses on how this debate left the rooms and flooded the nations through a series of books. Simpson begins the chapter this way:

“There have been men in every generation of Christians, it seems, who have found it their duty to publicize the errors of godly men to discredit them. … In short, they shout in the town square that there is a speck in the eye of a faithful preacher, while oblivious to the plank in their own eye.”

This is the discernment blogger. This is what floods so many of our Facebook groups.

IWhat to Do About a Neighbor's Barking Dog - Consumer Reports‘ll use Tim Keller as an example. I have some disagreements with Tim Keller including his views on creation, and how Redeemer has handled the issue of women deacons. However, I am deeply in his debt in terms of how to communicate the gospel. He is centered on the gospel and has a great deal of wisdom. I own most of his books and find them immensely helpful. The charges of being a feminist or holding to a social gospel are utterly unfounded. They have latched on to his pleas for the social implications of the gospel as if that is the gospel he preaches. He is very clear about Christ and Him crucified. He is routinely attacked online by people who usually have many sins of their own that are ignored. We tend to magnify the sins of the other and minimize ours. Tim, like Jonathan Edwards, generally avoids responding to these barking dogs (something I could learn more from).

Back to Burroughs! Thomas Edwards was a Presbyterian who took his disagreement with Burroughs on this issue to ungodly places. In his early days, Edwards was known as a “Young Luther”, a fiery reformer who spoke against the abuse of power by the Church of England. A sermon in 1628 would change his life. “He counseled listeners not to seek carnal advice when in doubt.” He would be imprisoned by ecclesiastical authorities until he recanted his error. Thomas Goodwin was the curate of the local church that signed his certificate of public recantation. Another signer was William Bridge, also an Independent at the Assembly in later years. This was the beginning, however, of over 20 years of trouble-making by Thomas Edwards.

Edwards became one of the most noxious opponents and critics of Congregationalists. Simpson notes: “What began in Edwards as an admirable zeal for truth had, over the years, degenerated into a lack of tolerance for godly ministers who differed from him in nonessential matters.” Burroughs himself put it this way: “It may be that he is angry with me because though my practice offends him not so much as others, yet I countenance and plead for those whom he cries out against as Schismatics.” Edwards was a hedge builder! He saw Congregationalism as allowing every sort of heretic and schismatic to be allowed to worship. Burroughs believed and advocated for no such thing. Some schismatics affirmed Burroughs in the misguided notion he’d tolerate their actual heresy. This is what likely enraged Edwards.

“He was, on the whole, a nasty sort of Christian.” David Masson, John Milton’s biographer on Edwards

Edwards was no longer able to disagree agreeably. He turned smaller disagreements into hills to die on, and condemned Burroughs and those like him. Think about that for a moment: calling a man a heretic because he holds to a different form of government. Refusing to recognize him as a brother for this sounds crazy, but I see similar denunciations on line often enough. I’ve been denounced for finer points of disagreement as though this somehow unraveled the entire gospel.

In 1644 Edwards would reply to the Congregationalists’ An Apologetical Narration with Antapologia: Or, A Full Answer to the Apologetical Narration of Mr. Goodwin, Mr. Nye, Mr. Sympson, Mr. Burroughs, Mr. Bridge, Members of the Assembly of Divines. You get the idea that there may have been some envy for their place in the Assembly. And the longer the title, the more angry the author seems to be.

“I can truly speak it that this present Antapologia is so far from being written out of any malice or ill will to the Apologists, that I love their persons, and value them as brethren; and besides that love I have for them as saints, I have a personal love, and a particular friendship to some of them…” Thomas Edwards

We see the power of self-deception. It’s not personal, it’s church government. His arguments against them referred to a schism in Rotterdam between Bridge and Simpson. This church split was addressed in An Apologetical Narration to show how sister churches can intervene to bring reconciliation. But Edwards used it to his advantage through conjecture, unsubstantiated claims and poor research. In other words, he didn’t prove anything but alleged much. Simpson argues that Edwards likely rushed to print and didn’t take the time to do proper research. Simpson’s source for this controversy was Ann Hughes’ Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution. It argues that Edwards often “distorted their meaning through his deletions and juxtapositions.” There were selective quotes, and at times misquotes. This is a common problem in our controversies.

It seems to be person for Edwards because while he suffered deprivation in England, they were enjoying fruitful ministry in Rotterdam.

“On the contrary, you enjoyed wives, children, estates, suitable friends, good houses and full fare; I cannot imagine fewer miseries, had you been in England.” Thomas Edwards

Burroughs and the others initially refused to respond to Edwards. Edwards attacked Burroughs’ wife in addition to him. He also attacked them for not responding. He wrote a second book, Gangraena: Or a Catalogue and Discovery of Many of the Errors, Heresies, Blasphemies and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of This Time, Vented and Acted in England in These Last Four Years, in part to undermine the ministries of the Apologists. He sought to make them guilty by association for the false doctrines of the sects. This is a common problem among “discernment bloggers”. If an author uses a quote from another is it falsely charged that the author affirms all the other has ever said. That is just ridiculous and false. His attacks on Burroughs became more personal. He laid the growth of sects at the feet of the Independents.

“Edwards’s intent was clear; if Parliament failed to ‘thoroughly purge’ all of the sects listed in Gangraena, he warned, that would demonstrate their lack of love for God’s truth and a lack of zeal for the truth of God and His house. … In short, Edwards played upon fears and equated inaction with a lack of love for God and His truth.”

This sounds all to familiar to me. Lack of compliance to one’s view means that you obviously don’t love God and truth. Edwards brought up a story involving a Mr. Alley (actually Mr. Alle but he repeatedly misspelled it) which was proven to be false. But he kept repeating it as proof that Burroughs was a liar.

Burroughs could finally take no more. He wrote Irenicum to the Lovers of Truth and Peace: Heart-Divisions Opened in the Causes and Evils to Them; with Cautions that We May Not be Hurt by Them, and Endeavors to Heal Them. Yes, an excruciatingly long title. Yet it was an expression of gospel peace. Richard Baxter would recommend it to those wanting to escape the sin of schism.

“Many men are of such spirits as they love to be altogether busied about their brethren’s differences. Their discourses, their pens, and all their ways are about these, and that not to heal them but rather to widen them.”

The goal of many, like Edwards, seemed to widen differences not heal relationships. This is the nature in which polemical theology was often carried out, and is often carried out now as well. These were divisions of the head and the heart. The underlying culprit was our depravity, particularly pride.

“A proud man thinks himself too great to be crossed. … A minor offense is sufficient reason that such a man as he should make men who will presume to cross him instead of yield to him, or stoop under him.”

Burroughs lamented these expressions of our depravity, seeing them as a blight upon our faith. Men in conflict often dishonored God’s name, in part of claiming His name for their cause instead of seeking unity. The “unity” they want is the other to bow to their will instead of finding the common ground and places where they can submit to one another and/or extend grace to one another. We need to pray for greater self-awareness about our weaknesses and sins.

He notes that the first dividing principle is “There can be no agreement without uniformity.” This is the idea that we must have uniformity of faith (on non-essentials or thinking all is essential) and practice. Among brothers there will not be such uniformity, nor should there be. I cannot demand that your church be exactly like my church.

In Burroughs’ day such lack of uniformity was resolved by the use of force. Men could be thrown in jail (since it was a state church). Many today have similar notions; agree with me or one of us must leave (either the congregation or the denomination). Burroughs directed against such rash separation from fellow Christians (being truly schismatic). Burroughs considered such separation to be of greater offense than many of the disagreements people used to justify such separation.

Burroughs recommended that we put the best interpretations on our brother’s actions and words unless we have just cause. This would include refusing to impute motives to people without cause. This is what charity does. So often charity is like water in a desert, sorely lacking.

“If I must err, considering what our condition is here in this world, I will rather err by too much gentleness and mildness than by too much rigor and severity.”

Such an attitude is born of humility. There is far too humility as well. The flesh is proud and prone to schism, factions and divisions. Seeing this to be true, we ought to be humbled.

This doesn’t mean being a wimp. Burroughs, after all, stood his ground on his church polity. He argued for toleration, not that all would be conformed to his will. We can have strong arguments for our position, but we should careful we are not falling into the opposite error (or falsely accusing our brother of doing that).

“In your disputes let your arguments be as hard as you will, but let your words be soft. Soft words and hard arguments will make a good dispute. Gentle language gains much upon the hearts of men.”

The goal is to win our brother, not our argument. Too often my words have not been as soft as they should. I want to be more like John Newton, Jeremiah Burroughs and Roger Nicole. They knew what they believed and stood by it, but without demonizing the other person. They did so without falsely representing the other person’s views.

“Never contend unless you are sure you understand one another as to what you contend for.”

Too often I read people putting words into my mouth that have no place being there. I’m not sure who they are arguing with, but it isn’t (simply) me. This means we should ask more questions to ascertain what their position actually is. A prime example is the question of whether SSA is sin. There has been much talking past one another on that issue.

“So far as reason and conscience will give way, yield to those whom you contend with.”

Texas Death Match for the ROH World Title Signed for Survival of ...Find places you can compromise, in the best sense of the word. Concede when you can instead of making everything a Texas Death Match.

“Make up breaches as soon as possible. Address them, if possible, at the beginning … If you defer the setting a broken bone, it cannot be done without much difficulty and great pain.”

I know this first hand. Unfortunately it takes both parties. When it doesn’t happen one or both can become entrenched and it is like trying to dislodge a tick. Or to return to Burroughs’ illustration, re-breaking a bone to set it properly is very painful.

Sadly, and predictably, Thomas Edwards did not appreciate Burroughs’ book. His next book had the longest name for a book I’ve ever seen: over 100 words. Simpson calls it hard to read due to long sentences, triviality, long-windedness and a severe tone. He guessed at people’s motives often.

Burroughs initially refused to continue a public feud with an unreasonable man. He offered to meet privately, but Edwards refused. Reluctantly he wrote A Vindication of Mr. Burroughs, Against Mr. Edwards’ Foul Aspersions etc. Edwards’ works were making life and ministry miserable for Burroughs. But Edwards’ seemed more eager to print more than to sit down and settle the matter. Burrough’s thoughts were some I’ve had: “What have I done … that thus angers the man?”

This is not a story that ended well. After an accident, Burroughs would die. The men would never be reconciled. After his death, Edwards continued to complete his third volume of Gangraena. He tried to assure people it wasn’t personal. But when Cromwell came to power in 1653, Edwards left for Holland to continue he polemical attacks. He would die there.

“Let us all study peace, seek peace, follow peace, pursue peace, and the God of peace be with us.”

 

Read Full Post »


Christmas means vacation. And vacation means reading a book from the Theologians On the Christian Life series by Crossway. I wasn’t sure which volume to read although my options were diminishing. I chose D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

The Doctor, as he is often called, is a favorite of Tim Keller (who is also deeply influenced by John Newton, C.S. Lewis and Richard Lovelace). I’ve found his books very helpful when I’ve read them. That can be tough in sermon preparation though because he’d preach multiple sermons on a text for which I’ll allot one. That means lots of reading. It is beneficial reading but time consuming.

I borrowed the documentary, Logic on Fire, from an elder in the congregation I serve. I found it funny that he would watch pro wrestling with his grandsons. It seemed “beneath” a man of his stature. It humanized him for me, actually. (Remember, this is 1970’s England not the jacked up sexualized WWE that arose in the 90’s).

The subtitle of Lloyd-Jone on the Christian Life is Doctrine and Life as Fuel and Fire. The premise of author Jason Meyer is doctrine is the fuel for life as a fire. Lloyd-Jones on the Christian Life: Doctrine and Life as Fuel and Fire (Theologians on the Christian Life) Meyer, Jason C. cover imageDoctrine is necessary to have a life on fire, a life alive and vibrant for the glory of God. Where there is no fire there is no doctrine. Doctrine hasn’t done its work until a life is on fire. Lloyd-Jones is not advocating for dead orthodoxy, mere intellectualism. We watch life and doctrine closely because Jesus joins them together.

This was what stood out about Lloyd-Jones’ preaching. The doctrine he preached “set him  on fire” so to speak. He was moved by it. When you are preaching, the greatest moments come when you are caught up by the doctrine. It produces holy affections in you (to borrow from Jonathan Edwards, a kindred spirit of Lloyd-Jones). The doctrine you preach affects you, filling you with a zeal and passion which is often called anointing or unction.

Jason Meyer is another interesting choice to contribute to this series. He is the “new” pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church and an associate professor of New Testament at Bethel College and Seminary. He has literally stepped into John Piper’s shoes. He’s not the first contributor connected to Desiring God ministries/Bethlehem. Tony Reinke’s volume on John Newton remains my favorite. I’m not sure if Meyers shares Piper’s charismatic leanings but it is interesting that he writes about a charismatic English congregationalist. In the second appendix on the Secession Controversy, Meyer notes he does approach that with a bias (more on this later).

The volume begins with a forward by CavFavorite Sinclair Ferguson. He relates receiving a letter from The Doctor while he was a young pastor serving in the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland. He was amazed that The Doctor knew who he was. And so began a correspondence that encouraged this young pastor-theologian. He suspects that Lloyd-Jones was behind the invitation to give 2 addresses at a minister’s conference in Wales (among his first?) since the other speaker was in fact Lloyd-Jones. The Doctor was concerned with Christ’s church, and this meant mentoring and encouraging younger men like Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson affirms Meyers’ thesis for this volume.

Meyer begins his volume in this series with this thesis. “The combustible combination of doctrinal precision and experiential power creates an explosion called the Christian life.” He then lays out 3 points for clarification:

1. Doctrine and life should be inseparable;

2. the right order is essential;

3. criticism is inevitable.

In explaining the first he notes that “Doctrine should start in the head, catch fire in the heart, and create a life aflame with true obedience in the will.” Christian life begins with doctrine, not experience (regeneration excepted, obviously). Like Paul, we follow what Ferguson calls the gospel logic of first gospel indicatives and then gospel imperatives (yes, toss some Ridderbos in there too). Criticism is inevitable, and inevitably from both sides (or extremes) if you are walking the line, to borrow from Johnny Cash. True gospel preaching is called legalistic by the antinomians and cheap grace by the legalists, as an example. If you only get criticism from one side, you have likely lost your gospel balance. As Charlie Peacock sings, “there’s no insult like the truth.”

He begins with a brief account of Lloyd-Jones’ life. Meyer frames it from his birth in South Wales to Barts, from London to his return to Wales as a pastor, and his return to London as the pastor of Westminster Chapel. When he was 10, his father’s store went up in flames. His father threw Martyn from the living space above the shop into the arms of men on the street. All lived but financial problems plagued them for years. Four years later his father declared bankruptcy.

Martyn began to take his studies more seriously and excelled. He did so well that he was accepted into St. Bartholomew’s Medical School (aka Barts) at the age of 16. As a student there he stood out and he caught the eye of the king’s physician. He was known for his diagnostic skill and soon was Sir Thomas Horder’s junior house physician. Lloyd- Jones began to note the connection between the presenting symptoms and “moral emptiness and spiritual hollowness” experienced by the royal family and other dignitaries of the land which resulted in “wickedness, excess and jealousy.”

Disillusioned, Lloyd-Jones began to attend Westminster Chapel. Dr. John Hutton’s preaching was powerful in his life. He became convinced of God’s power to save and change lives. Now a Christian, he wanted to get to the root of people’s problems. He spent over a year, losing over 20 pounds wrestling with whether or not to leave medicine for ministry. In early 1927 he married Bethan and moved back to Wales to begin a new career as a pastor among the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists.

In a time that de-emphasized preaching, Lloyd-Jones removed the drama society, musical evenings and preached Christ. In the eleven years of ministry there, it is estimated that 500 people were converted and joined the church.

Vocal problems caused him to leave Wales for London. Dr. Campbell Morgan, the pastor of Westminster Chapel, invited him to come and share the pulpit. He agreed thinking it a temporary situation. Within a few months, World War II broke out. Eventually the congregation and giving dwindled so they could only support one pastor. Morgan retired in 1943 and after the end of the war, rebuilding the congregation began. From London he gained great prominence as a preacher. He retired in 1968 after a diagnosis of colon cancer. His retirement allowed him to travel and preach until 1980. He died on March 1, 1981. His final recorded words were, “Do not pray for healing. Do not hold me back from the glory.”

What is interesting is that Lloyd-Jones is technically not a theologian. He was a prominent pastor. His books are collections of his sermons. They contain theology, but we tend to think of “theologians” as men who teach in seminaries, write books of theology and often make some significant theological contribution. That isn’t what he did, but he was one of the most significant men of the 20th century as far as the church is concerned.

Meyer then walks us through Lloyd-Jones’ doctrine. The Doctor did a series to theological/doctrinal lectures on Friday nights. His lectures seemed to loosely follow the pattern of the Westminster Confession. Meyer covers God the Father Almighty, Christ and Him Crucified, the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, Redemption Applied: Justification and Sanctification, the Church and Last Things. This section takes up about 70 pages. There is nothing too surprising here. He does explore Christ as Prophet, Priest and King which is a pet doctrine of mine. In each of these Meyer addresses how to apply the doctrine.

There is a confusing section on the Holy Spirit, however. Meyer writes:

“The Scriptures reveal that the Spirit is subordinate to both the Father and the Son.”

This sounds like a new and different ESS with the Spirit taking the place of the Son. But I don’t know, it is unclear if Meyer is speaking of the ontological or economic Trinity. With the swirling ESS controversy (which includes Crossway due to the ESV Study Bible notes) you’d think this would be crystal clear. Meyer does hold off the questions regarding the baptism of the Spirit for the first appendix.

Lloyd-Jones was a Congregationalist, yet in the chapter on the church Meyer says “The Doctor lays great stress on regenerate church membership because he believes he was not regenerate when he became a member at his local church.” And then, “The names on the local church membership roll should be names that are already written in heaven.” This is Meyer not Lloyd-Jones and I wish there was a citation or two.

Most Congregationalists hold to infant baptism. For The Doctor to reject infant baptism would be unusual. For him to reject it based on his personal experience would be eisegesis. I find the idea of “regenerate church membership” to be an example of “over-realized ecclesiology.” We can’t know who is regenerate and who isn’t. This is a misnomer at best. It is covenant promise denial at worst.

The book then shifts from doctrine to life. Each chapter he offers a definition, a diagnosis and prescriptions. He begins with the Word. Meyer starts with Lloyd-Jones’ doctrine of the Word (inspired, propositional, superintending work of the Spirit). He moves into why we find it difficult to read the Bible and then a number of prescriptions to cure our ailment.

Additional chapters in this section are on prayer, faith working through love, life in the Spirit at home and work, spiritual depression and the hope of glory as an acid test. There are discussions about the flesh, the world and the devil as part of the diagnoses of our spiritual ailments. We are not simply supposed to be “on fire” at church but also at home and work. He talks about emotionalism and counterfeits of love.

There is plenty of good material here, particularly in the chapter on spiritual depression. Here we see Lloyd-Jones’ advice to stop listening to yourself and talk to yourself; his version of preaching the gospel to yourself. While reading this chapter I synthesized a thought found there for my sermon that week.

“You can’t glory in Christ and salvation if you minimize your sinfulness and corruption.” CavPastor

Lloyd-Jones consistently pointed people back to Jesus. Our hope is found only in Christ. We receive Him, and His benefits, only by faith. As he addresses hope and assurance, Meyer essentially describes a three-legged stool: doctrinal test, experience test, and the morality test. None is sufficient in themselves. They are all held together, so to speak, by what he called the acid test, the hope of glory. This is where we sit when times are difficult.

Meyer than writes about the legacy of The Doctor. It is quite a legacy. You can still listen to some of his sermons on line. But his books which worked through books of the Bible are plenty and beneficial. At times one can forget that those books have sermons from various points in his ministry. As a result there may be multiple sermons on the same text with different concerns.

The books reflect his commitment to expositional preaching. He was important to the re-emergence of expositional preaching (working thru books). Anyone wanting to learn how to preach expositionally is well served to read his books.

Lloyd-Jones was also one of the key figures in reintroducing the Puritans to the Church. He was involved in the formation of Banner of Truth Trust, and sponsored a regular conference on the Puritans.

The first appendix covers a controversy surrounding The Doctor and one of the places where he seems inconsistent. Meyer notes some possible instances of eisegesis. At the very least his views are idiosyncratic on this issue. He doesn’t really fit in the common categories. He’s not Pentecostal, and not an ordinary charismatic (which has gotten more confusing for the rest of us with each successive wave). He does depart from historic Reformed Theology in separating the baptism of the Spirit from conversion. Reformed Theology generally affirms subsequent filling of the Spirit. MLJ seems to speak of those fillings as baptism. At times he used baptism to refer to the witness or sealing of the Spirit.

Lloyd-Jones rightly connects Word and Spirit throughout his theology. He also connects doctrine and experience. He thought, at least in this issue, Reformed Theology separated doctrine and experience. He thought they focused on doctrine while the Charismatic movement focused on experience. Where he errs (or is it Meyer’s interpretation) is thinking this was in asserting the Reformed intellectualism is a response to Charismatic fanaticism. This neglects the fact that the Reformed view predates the rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements.

On the one hand the baptism of the Spirit is to be sought, and on the other it is given sovereignly by God’s secret will. Seems a bit inconsistent. Does God only grant it if we seek it? Or does God grant it, like regeneration, so we receive blessings? A bigger problem is this could be considered not only as creating 2nd class Christians but also dividing Christ as though I can get some benefits and you get other benefits.

The second appendix is on the Secession Controversy begun with a sermon of his in 1966  at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals. Lloyd-Jones was reacting to the ecumenical movement’s emphasis on unity in structure. Lloyd-Jones believed (rightly) that our unity rests in doctrine (and, I’d add, union with Christ). As a Congregationalist, Lloyd-Jones understood the Church differently than his Anglican friends J.I. Packer, John Stott and Philip Edgecomb Hughes. They wanted to see reform within the Church of England, not removal of faithful congregations from the Church of England. Lloyd-Jones saw denominations as fundamentally flawed and unnecessary. Faithful churches should form loose associations. The others saw denominations and state churches as part of the providence of God and sought to work in and thru them.

While relationships were strained, they seem to have recovered. But much damage was done in congregations and other relationships. As I read this appendix I thought of my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America. It struggles with groups seeking purity, and withdrawing from the denomination. It makes sense, we were born of such a thing. But the stakes, in my opinion, are significantly lower. Like the Secession Controversy, relationships are broken and bitterness sets in. I lament this.

Overall, this is a very good book. Meyer has done good work here in helping us understand Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ understanding of how we are to live. It is generally well written, aside from the instances mentioned above that lacked citations. This volume in the series is well-worth your time.

 

Read Full Post »


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »


I’Related imagem focused on the books I’ve read this year. So this isn’t a best and worst list of releases in 2019. There are books new and old, but these are books I read in 2019. Some of these might be helpful to you, faithful reader, and I might provide fair warning on lesser books not worthy of your time.

My Favorites

The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God by Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow. The ascension is a much neglected doctrine by Protestants, and this is a very good introduction to the subject, and necessity, of the ascension of Jesus. Jesus is the forerunner, the first man to enter the heavenly temple in the flesh. He does so as our covenant head, so we will surely follow. He currently intercedes for us as our Great High Priest for us. He’s also our King who pours out His Spirit and exercises His rule in providence. This is a Christ-exalting and encouraging book.

On the Brink: Grace for the Burned Out Pastor by Clay Werner. This was a timely read for me as a prolonged conflict had me on the brink. While the conflict continued well into the year, I was invested in making some of the changes I needed to make (though perhaps not everyone agreed about that). This book helped me not only stay in ministry but where I was called. I’m thankful for this book.

Habakkuk: The Expectant Prophet by John Currid. This was an expositional commentary that I found particularly helpful while preaching through Habakkuk. It addressed many of my exegetical questions and provided some great ANE background to help me preach the text better.

In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde. This comes from the same biblical studies series as the book on the ascension. This is a good introduction. It doesn’t answer every question you may have. They do approach it from the vantage point of church planting. In Christ we are safe from the wrath of God. Here they focus on our salvation in union of Christ. Our union with Christ is also relational, we are connected to Christ and now in the presence of God. We also grow in Christ as a focus of our sanctification. They then discuss the communion of saints, the relational realities of our union. They also discuss our mission and the realities of our struggles. This is a helpful addition to the recent spate of books on this important doctrine.

Holy Sexuality and the Gospel: Sex, Desire and Relationships Shaped by God’s Grand Story by Christopher Yuan. Christopher himself has a very moving testimony. Here he brings the gospel to bear on our sexuality, interacting with many of the issues currently being discussed and debated thanks to ReVoice and the continuing cultural push to normalize homosexuality (please, don’t confuse the two). His book is applicable not just for people who struggle with SSA (he still does) but also single adults and married people. The fall affected everyone’s sexuality, desires and relationship. If anything, I wish this book was longer.

Busy for Self, Lazy for God: Meditations on Proverbs for Diligent Living by Nam Joon Kim (translated by Charles Kim) is a rare book on sloth. At times it reflects his culture, which most wouldn’t accuse of laziness. As he keeps to the proverbs, there is much good and challenging material for us to consider so we forsake our laziness. He does have a gospel focus, so this is not simply moralistic and guilt-producing.

A Journey to Wholeness: The Gospel According to Naaman’s Slave Girl by Mark Belz. This is an excellent addition to the Gospel According to the Old Testament series. As I stated in my review, if a book stirs up a desire to preach a portion of Scripture it must be an excellent book. At times he puts too many words in people’s mouths, or thoughts in their heads but he helps us to see the gospel clearly through this OT event.

Grace Defined and Defended by Kevin DeYoung is a treatment of the Synod of Dort (or Dordt) on its 500th anniversary. It is a helpful explanation of this important document seeking to resolve the conflict between the church and the Remonstrants. His focus is on how Calvinism is put forth, but includes how Arminianism is laid out in the series of questions by Jacob Arminius’ followers. This is not overly technical and would be helpful for laypeople.

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral and How it Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn. I loved this book which provided lots of information about the part of the country I live in today. There is plenty of background on the Earps and the conflict which gets simplified, reduced and distorted in movies. This will be of great interest to history buffs or people interested in the Old West. And it is very interesting.

The Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the World by Scott Redd. This is a timely book for our time with its discussion of desires and identity. He deals with already/not yet realities as he unfolds a vision of progressive sanctification moving us toward whole heartedness. It isn’t simply about the mortification of sin but more the vivification of virtue and devotion. This flows from the implications the Shema and our response to the God who is one or united.

Faith. Hope. Love. The Christ-Centered Way to Grow in Grace by Mark Jones. This excellent book is in three parts, as you might imagine. Hope is the shortest, and love the longest because he explores the law as an expression of God’s love to us and our love to God and others. The section on faith explores the nature of saving faith. There is plenty to stir the soul here.

The Blessing of Humility: Walk Within Your Calling by Jerry Bridges. This is one of the last books he wrote. In this short book he describes humility using the beatitudes. As I noted in my review, this is a gospel-drenched book. The beatitudes describe who Jesus is for us, and who He is in the process of making us.

Evangelism as Exiles: Life on Mission as Strangers in Our Own Land by Eliot Clark. This is a meditation on 1 Peter thru the lens of mission. He plays off Peters theme of exile as he writes to a church in America that has been losing cultural power for decades. We increasingly feel out of place, like exiles. This should shape how we live, serve and make Jesus known. When we are grounded in gospel hope we don’t live in fear of what happens in our culture.

Leading with a Limp: Turning Your Struggles into Strengths by Dan Allender is one of my favorite books on leadership. Struggling this year, I read it again. It is still a great book about how God uses us, not in spite of but because of our flaws. We are jars of clay and the treasure is the gospel. You are the great leader, Jesus is. As we embrace our flaws and weaknesses we become better leaders.

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People by Jonty Rhodes. This is a great introduction to Covenant Theology. It is easy to understand, doesn’t get bogged down in minutia, has helpful diagrams so you can visualize the theology, and talks about how this matters to us today. His chapter on Jeremiah 31 is helpful in the intramural debate with New Covenant Theology to grasp the continuity and expansion of the covenant.

The Works of John Newton by … you guessed it, John Newton. This contains his letters, an autobiography, sermons, short treatises a brief history of the church among other things. I find so much pastoral wisdom in John Newton. He’s not profound like John Owen, but he is incredibly helpful in shaping the pastoral heart, and the Christian heart. He’s worth the investment of time.

The Mediocre

Uprooting Anger: Biblical Help for a Common Problem by Robert Jones. This was not a bad book. It was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Jones failed to make some important distinctions and connections flowing from (perhaps) his different presuppositions. His goal was “getting rid of anger” rather than becoming slow to anger (like God), and how to “be angry and sin not.” As a result, there are biblical helps that are ignored by the author.

A Theology of Mark: The Dynamic between Christology and Authentic Discipleship by Hans Bayer. I bought and read it based on the subtitle. He does make some excellent points about it but I found the structure of the book to get in the way of really benefiting from this book as I’d hoped. I was left wanting more. It did, however lead me into preaching through Mark, so there is that.

The Downright Bad

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace by Harvie Conn. I appreciate the thesis of this book. It’s delivery is so dated and non-linear I just couldn’t finish it. I deemed it not worth my time and effort despite its influence on some people I respect greatly.

There are more I could have put here. There are other good books I read, but these are the best, and the most frustrating. Enjoy or stay away, as the case may be.

Read Full Post »


The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI’m moving toward the end of The Works of John Newton. There are a few items in the 4th volume I want to address separately. The one that seems pertinent to me existentially is Thoughts on the Government of the Tongue.

We are in the midst of political polarization as a nation. As a denomination, we are in the midst of theological polarization. As I think about my own words they are not always what they should be. I also feel kicked around, misunderstood and attacked at other times. I’m beginning to make more use of the FB snooze function. However, I am not looking forward to 2020 because this election looks to be even more polarizing and spiteful than 2016 was.

Newton begins his thoughts this way:

There is perhaps no one test or proof of the reality of a work of grace upon the heart, more simple, clear, and infallible, than the general tenor of our language and conversations; …”

He is applying James 3 in light of Jesus’ words “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” James warns us of the danger of the tongue. It can burn down families, churches and nations. We can build up or tear down with our kids, spouses or friends.

The last year or so has been an exercise in holding my tongue. Some people may not believe it, but they didn’t hear all that is in my heart because I don’t want to damage relationship in my anger. James warns that the one who can’t bridle his tongue has vain religion.

“It is not the restraint of the heart, the apostle requires.”

While it is our duty to watch and mortify the sinful desires of our hearts. But “he supposes that the grace of God in a true believer will check the evils of the heart, and prevent them from breaking out by the tongue.” This means that a husband won’t light into his wife (or a wife her husband) when they disagree. This means that you don’t attack your neighbor who votes differently than you but perhaps seek to understand their perspective. We note the hatred and anger arising in our hearts and refuse to give vent to them.

Newton notes that restraining our tongues is not to be taken so strictly that we think a Christian never speaks unadvisedly. We see godly men like Job and Jeremiah cursing the day they were born. While godly people frequently restrain their tongues, James also notes that we all sin in many ways, including our speech. This is part of the sanctification process.

I don’t know if Trump is a genuine Christian. Taken strictly, one would be tempted to say “No way, Jose.” But if his reported conversion a few years is genuine, we should not be surprised if it takes time for a man who used speech sinfully in many ways to begin to restrain his tongue (and his tweets). If grace is in his heart, “it will so regulate and control the tongue, that it shall not customarily offend.” People need time to change, and it is frequently incremental. This should give most of us hope. We see change, but long for more (if we are honest).

But the counterfeit Christian cannot bridle his tongue because there is no grace in his heart. He may learn theology, help out around the church but the tongue will persist in gossip, slander, unwholesome speech and verbal assault.

Newton moves to what it means to bridle the tongue. One aspect is their language toward God.

“So likewise the hearts of believers teach their mouths to speak honorably of God under all their afflictions and crosses, acknowledging the wisdom and mercy of his dispensations; and if an impatient word escapes them, it grieves and humbles them…”

In affliction the sinful heart wants to curse God, blame God. The Spirit of grace works to restrain that sinful desire. When we do accuse or curse, the Spirit of grace convicts us so we are grieved.

It also restrains our prideful speech of ourselves. That tendency we have to assert we alone are right and good, and those who disagree with us are singularly evil, stupid or blind. We speak as though we have all the answers. Instead, the Spirit moves us to speak of ourselves as unworthy, needy creatures.

“In what they say of or to others, the tongues of believers are bridled by a heartfelt regard to truth, love and purity.”

Not just truth. Not just love. Our tongues are bridled by truth and love. And purity. Truth and love restrain our tongues so we don’t speak falsehood or hatefully. We begin to have an internal restrain, which is the key. That restraint is truth, love and purity. It isn’t fear.

Newton recognizes that we can unwittingly speak untruths. We can speak from ignorance, forgetfulness. We aren’t speaking to deceive. But we are wrong. Sometimes your opponent is just plain wrong, not lying. Keep that in mind as the election draws near.

The tongue is bridled by truth because God is the God of truth. Jesus is the truth. It is bridled by love because God is love. God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. As a result we are restrained by purity. We are holy because He is holy.

“… though true believers may, on some occasions, speak rashly, and have great cause for humiliation, watchfulness, and prayer, with respect to the government of their tongues…”

Yes, we have a goal and a motive but we have not arrived. This is cause for humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand. This is cause for watchfulness when in disagreement with another. This is cause for prayer that God will guard our mouths and tongues.

Newton provides us with some helpful, edifying thoughts and direction for governing our tongues as manifestation of grace. It is well worth heeding as we move into an election year, as we continue in denominational debate and engage in everyday conflict.

Read Full Post »


The Works of John Newton (4 Volume Set) Newton, John cover imageI was on vacation for most of July, so as a result I got a late start on volume 3 of the Works of John Newton. I tried to read more than my normal 10 pages a day (50/week) but still ended about 3 weeks late.

Volume 3 begins with a series of 50 sermons on Handel’s Messiah. He preached on the texts of Scripture that Handel used in his famous piece of music. The Messiah has recently been released and was being performed to great crowds throughout London.

Newton was not happy about this development. He saw this as something of a trivialization of the Scripture by using it as entertainment. His point was that many unbelievers, mesmerized by the music, would cheer though they had no interest in the words. This critical aspect pops up in many of the sermons from those texts.

I’George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.jpgm reminded of the sermons and books that we critical of Harry Potter or the Da Vinci Code. These sermons should not be thought of like those misled sermons we may have heard. He actually does interpret and apply the text rather than grind his ax in eisigetical mish-mosh. They are edifying despite the occasional annoying (to me) criticism of The Messiah.

More annoying to me was the many typographical errors in this section of the volume. For instance, on page 281 I found 3 errors. No editor is perfect. As a wannabe author it is hard to find all my mistakes. There just seemed to be more than usual, and I found it distracting.

“…determined in. and laughed…

… who did ail things well?

… name it retains .the same spirit …”

After 437 pages of sermons on the texts used in The Messiah, there is a shift to some tracts. The first is a series of 4 letters to the pastor of an independent church. Newton is defending his decision to serve in the established church. This is interesting to see how the issues shifted over time and how Newton thought through it issues. I found it interesting since at times there are pastors quite dissatisfied with our denomination. He addresses issues of liturgy and worship. For instance, he notes that many independent churches used pre-written prayers and hymns in their worship. They also plan their worship ahead of time. The Book of Common Prayer is not as far off as the Independents may have argued. In terms of doctrine he notes that there was a diversity of doctrinal views among the Independents, like on baptism. They also differed on who may be admitted to the Table. Similar diversity in doctrine among Church of England pastors should not have been as big an issue as they made it.

JohnNewtonColour.jpgThis reminds me that we often see other people’s sins more readily than ours. We see other people’s inconsistencies more readily than our own. We see other people’s typos more readily than our own. People magnify differences and minimize agreement as they argue their way of (worship, methods of ministry, theology etc.) is far superior to justify splitting.

Next he proposes A Plan of Academical Preparation for the Ministry in a Letter to a Friend. There is some interesting material in there. It would be difficult to practice at this point. He wanted to move ministerial preparation out of the colleges and into the churches. He wants to see that tutors are “gospel men” not simply academics. While he preferred Calvinists, he didn’t want men with a party spirit. They are to major in the Scriptures and theology, and minor in the classics.

Pupils are to live with the tutor. They must “have an awakened experimental sense of the truth and goodness of the gospel.” They must have a capacity for ministry; gifts as well as grace.

It is nearly like a monastery. They would limit their acquaintances outside their studies and service. They were to avoid “love and courtship” while being pupils.

Next is a treatise upon the death of his niece Eliza upon her death. The Newtons took her in after the death of her parents and siblings. He much sings her praises in how she approached death in faith.

The volume closes with a series of occasional sermons. This section begins with The Subject and Temper of the Gospel Ministry, his first sermon at the parish of Saint Mary Woolnoth in 1779. The next was from Jeremiah on an appointed fast day during the American Revolution called The Guilt and Danger of Such a Nation as This. He explores the national sins, made greater in light of the gospel blessings they have experienced. Many of these sins may sound familiar to us in the United States.

This is followed by a funeral sermon for Rector Richard Conyers in 1786. He focused on the gospel hope that Conyers preached to them and which he now enjoyed. Then a sermon on the best wisdom, the winning of souls, delivered to the meeting of the Society for the Promoting Religious Knowledge Among the Poor.

IFull-length portrait in oils of a clean-shaven young George in eighteenth century dress: gold jacket and breeches, ermine cloak, powdered wig, white stockings, and buckled shoes.n 1789 there was a day of national thanksgiving for the restoration of King George III’s (mental) health. Newton preaches on the second advent of Christ from 1 Thessalonians 4. The joy of the people seeing their apparently beloved King (who was hated on the other side of the ocean) pales in comparison to Jesus’ people beholding their eternal King.

Then there is another national fast day sermon from 1794 as France has been waging war throughout Europe after its revolution. He explores the possibility of God relenting if the people repented in Jonah. In this sermon he explores the sins of the slave trade as a stain upon England. He encourages repentance that God may relent and restrain France’s aggression.

The final sermon is from a day of thanksgiving in 1797 due to a series of naval victories. He preaches on motivations to humiliation and praise from Hosea 11.

This final section is highly interesting to me due to the historical aspects of many of these sermons. Unfortunately, as times he speaks as if Britain was a new Israel and particularly favored. This is a sentiment that, sadly, has been adopted by many American pastors as well. Yet, here we also see the grace-oriented Newton hammering home the sins of his audience and home country. I wish we would have national days of fasting or thanksgiving- times when our nation seeks to humble itself in times of emergency.

This rather diverse volume is well-worth reading as have been the others so far. Now I try to finish volume 4, and the set, prior to the end of this year.

Read Full Post »


Sometimes the people you read champion a book that was influential on them. You make note of the book. You buy it and eventually you read it.

Because of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer and John Piper I began to read the Puritans. Due to Tim Keller I began to read John Newton. Newton has been very helpful for me.

Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching GraceBecause of Keller, and some others, I picked up Harvie Conn’s Evangelism: Doing Justice and Preaching Grace. It was foundational for them in advocating for what I think is a healthy balance of seeing justice as an implication of the gospel. Transformed people will want to see their world transformed. As we grow in personal righteousness (sanctification) we will act justly and seek to love our neighbors. I seemed like I needed to read this little book when I found it in the internet “discount bin”.

Were my expectations too high? Would it exceed my expectations?

One important thing about when I read a book is how much red ink I use. That could mean either a great book with lots of “money quotes” or big ideas I want to keep track of. Lots of ink could also mean it is a book I take great exception to, as the writing in the margins argues against the authors point.

I didn’t use much ink in this book before I gave up in the midst of his chapter on prayer. It was meh to me. I was underwhelmed and found it too bound to its time.

In his preface he notes that it is not a “how-to” book. “Rather, this is an effort to look at the relation between evangelism and social questions as two sides of the same coin.” He uses the terms holistic evangelism and Lordship evangelism to describe this balance and interdependence. It was written as the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelism was doing its work.

Time can prove that many of our fears and expectations are unfounded. History takes unexpected turns. He brought up the United Presbyterian Church’s steep decline in membership. If such trends continued, he anticipated one priest (?) for each communing member by 2000. Well, they were part of the formation of the PC (USA), which while continuing to bleed churches and members still has a fair amount of money and more members than pastors.

He does address the need for contextualization, “how to communicate the relevance of the gospel.” He faults, to a degree, the seminaries’ focus that has seemingly resulted in homogeneous churches instead. We forgot to be all things to all men while presenting the one message in a way those people can get. The doctrine of accommodation should teach us that we must shape our message to the people who are listening.

In his day (and more so ours) there is a skepticism to our message and the stories of those who bear it. Conn notes that Corrie Ten Boom is seen as a “woman with high ideals who showed remarkable resiliency under pressure” rather than recognizing the triumph of grace in her life. You see the times in the skeptical views of reports of the conversions of Charles Colson, Larry Flynt and Eldridge Cleaver. Clearly the 2nd proved false. I chose not to bring up his false conversion in a sermon, thinking it was a bit too edgy. Conn mentions plenty of such things in this book.

IHardcore Postern the context of accommodation and the message he refers to the movie Hard Core about the daughter of a pastor whose daughter leaves home and enters the porn industry. Oddly, I’d recently heard an interview with the writer & director, Paul Schrader, who also worked on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, 1st Reformed, American Gigolo, and Mosquito Coast. He grew up on the Reformed Faith and sees himself as a preacher, but not of faith though the “failures” of faith often show up in his movies. We speak into this skepticism, failure and scandal, whether we realize it or not. If we do, we can speak to it as well.

In the second chapter he moves to what we are calling people to: incorporation, humanization, celebration and justice. Our words should also be backed up with actions. We speak of love, and should show love.

“Evangelism must become gospel show-and-tell, showing mercy and preaching grace.”

This can be difficult for smaller churches, like the one I pastor. I agree there is an evangelistic aspect to diaconal ministry. But our first priority is to our members. With limited resources to help the household of God, the evangelistic bent to diaconal ministry gets lost.

10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. 1 Timothy 5

He then moves into justice; setting things right as part of evangelism. “The doing of justice becomes the distinguishing mark of the people of God before the world.” Instead, we seem to either be afraid of doing justice lest we become social justice warriors, or go so far as to justify the injustice. Yes, there is a real threat to devolve in to a social gospel, which is not gospel at all.

As I think about things, I struggle with the whole concept of the culture war. Doing justice isn’t about embracing or resisting worldly agendas. We shouldn’t be either SJWs or oppressors/defenders. Our marching orders are from the Scriptures, not culture. We should be walking a tightrope instead of moving toward the extremes which tends to demonize people who commit one sin while excusing others. We need to hear the call to “love mercy and act justly” instead of thinking they are opposed to one another.

One way he puts this is in talking about publicans. Among the people we meet are those who sin and those who are sinned against. Actually, every person we meet is both a sinner and someone who has been sinned against. We should address both sides of that coin.

“A gospel that does not address people as sinned-against pose a lot of problems for the publican, the sinned-against. Either he rejects the gospel or sees it as an opiate.”

The prostitute is not simply a sinner, though we want to reduce her to that. She likely has been sinned against as a child. She is likely being oppressed in the present, a slave to a pimp, as well. (The same is true for male prostitutes though we don’t speak of them often).

We can’t turn a blind eye to past and present oppression of the black community in America. The gospel is often seen as a way to placate them and keep them in submission instead of offering freedom and hope. Doing justice opens the door for the message.

He then discusses a two-dimensional spirituality. We are to obey both the cultural and evangelistic mandates. We are not to pick and choose between them. Love for neighbor means not only proclaiming the gospel but also doing no wrong to our neighbor by our actions (or inaction). Into this he returns to the Lausanne Covenant. It speaks of “sacrificial service evangelism”.

He doesn’t want us to pick one, but to see them as “two stages in God’s covenant relationship with man.” Having failed in the cultural mandate, we now have the added evangelistic mandate. Continuing to fail in terms of the cultural mandate means that those fallen social, economic and political structures hinder evangelism.

At times, this chapter is less than clear. He uses terms without always defining them. Snooze at any point and you get lost. But here are a few parts I underlined:

“This kind of spirituality does not equip us for evangelism by taking us out of the world. It puts a new world into us, the world of the spiritual, that new lifestyle caused by the Holy Spirit, centered in the Holy Spirit, and possessed by the Holy Spirit.”

“Living in the Spirit is not an evangelistic escape from history, but a participation in the new reality of history brought by the redemptive work of Christ and the applying work of the Holy Spirit.”

I’d been trying to read this book alone with my sermon series on Mark. It seemed to fit the idea of following Jesus in terms of what it looks like to submit to the authority of Jesus. We act justly and preach grace. But this short book always seemed to get lost in the shuffle, and was far more theoretical than practical.

And so I started to read the chapter on prayer and gave up. His writing style was less then helpful to me. Perhaps I’m too dull to get it, but I lost my patience for the book. It was time to move on for me. There are other books crying for my attention, and it is time to heed those calls.

I was disappointed. Perhaps it is this particular juncture in my life and ministry. Perhaps it was just bad timing. I don’t want to write off the book as utterly unhelpful, but it was not as helpful as I’d hoped. Conn’s approach seems meandering at times, lacking focus. At least I coudn’t always tell where he was going, and the process of getting there was roundabout-ish.

There is it. Hopefully you get a few good thoughts to move you forward in thinking about justice and grace in the work of the church. Biblically, they are not opposed though we often move toward extremes of either the social gospel or spirituality of the church. This is a conversation worth having as we see the rise of the social justice warriors and their mirror reflection in conservative culture warriors. Jesus, I think, would distance Himself from both.

 

Read Full Post »


IThe Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the Worldf there seems to be a book needed for our times, it would appear to be The Wholeness Imperative: How Christ Unifies Our Desires, Identity and Impact in the World by Scott Redd. Redd is the president and professor of OT of the DC campus of RTS. In our current context the questions of desires and identity are at the forefront as the ecumenical parachurch group Revoice brings these questions to the forefront.

We are reckoning with God’s design in the gospel and how the already/not yet impacts that gospel design. A tension develops which is key to the Revoice controversy. Can one’s sexual orientation change? A different question is should we expect it to change in this life? The first is about possibility and the second is about likelihood of change.

Identity is about how we think about ourselves. Revoice brings up another tension for us between our identity in Christ and the reality of our on-going sinfulness. We are simul justus et peccator- at the same time just and sinner. Our ultimate identity is in Christ, but we still struggle with sin. How are we to speak of this? How are we to process this tension between the positional and personal since they are not yet unified?

In the midst of this we have a missional reality. The questions of desires and identity affect our mission. How we speak of ourselves impacts the people we bring the gospel to in evangelism. How we speak of ourselves impacts how believers who struggle with profound sin. Are they really Christians? Worthy Christians? Welcome in the church? These are big questions.

This book is not directly about this question, but has application to that question.

Redd begins his book at a the re-affirmation of his faith as a teenager. His dreams didn’t reflect his faith. He began to wonder, “If I’m not a Christian in my dreams, am I Christian?” His desires were not unified. Here Redd speaks of the soul. He speaks of being and doing. We tend to separate the two. The gospel seeks to unify them so we begin to do in accordance with our being or identity in Christ. Being precedes doing and doing flows out of being.

“This is the tension inherent in the Christian life: a tension that springs from the already-ness and the not yet-ness of the salvation we have in Christ. We live between the acute angles of what has been done and what we are awaiting to be done, what is and what will be.”

Redd brings us to the gospel logic of indicative-imperative through Herman Bavinck. Christ’s work for us is the foundation for our gospel responses and obedience. Christ’s work for us means that Christ begins to work in us to make us like He is. This begins at conversion and continues in this life.

He then addresses our wholeness by talking about the wholeness of God as revealed in the Shema (Deut. 6). God’s wholeness calls for a wholeness in our response to Him. He’s whole-hearted and calls us to be whole-hearted as well. In the gospel, Jesus provides forgiveness for our divided hearts and desires. In the gospel, Jesus provides the gift of the Spirit to transform us into His likeness. The movement is from the inside out: internal transformation => external transformation. Morality focuses on the outside while the gospel changes the inside first through a reordering of our desires. Repentance, Redd stresses, includes confessing the fragmented nature of our souls and desires, the fact that we compartmentalize and need Jesus to re-integrate our lives.

Redd then moves to the role of Scripture to provide us nourishment and power for the journey toward wholeness. He explores Psalm 119 to address the aim of our journey, aid along the way, our defense and delight. He then moves into false aims, aides, defenses and delights because our sinful hearts seeks counterfeits.

Image result for solomon's templeNext he introduces pious superstition through Jeremiah 7. They thought all would be well, despite their pursuit of sin, as long as the temple was standing. So God would remove the temple on account of their sins. Lest we think we are free from pious superstition since there is no physical temple, he notes our idol-factory hearts produce any number of talismans we think will protect us from God’s wrath and cover our sins. He mentions church attendance and participation. I’ll toss in “doctrinal integrity” which we think means we don’t have to actually love people (okay, he goes there too on page 67). God is love and the commandments hang on love to God and our neighbor. Sound doctrine matters, but the goal is not simply sound doctrine but sound living which means loving others well.

“He points to their ongoing sins, sins which infect their private lives but have also flowed into the oppression of those in their community who are lacking the social and family structures to care for themselves.”

We can see pious superstition functioning in the German church during the Third Reich, the American south when it embraced slavery and segregation. Pious superstition, Redd says, is about control. We want to control our lives instead of submitting to the lordship of Christ. As a result, we substitute the superstition for vibrant faith in Christ that focuses on His priorities and commands. For instance, we may isolate a command we “keep” which excuses the ones we don’t. He then lays out 5 diagnostic principles to identify pious superstitions in your life.

He then shifts to the exodus and conquest as two sides of the same redemption. He sets us free, sustains us in the wilderness and brings us into a new land. The exodus is a picture of our conversion and justification. The rest is our sanctification and glorification. Salvation isn’t about cheap grace but life transformation. In the gospel Jesus reveals His love for us, and what it looks like for us to love (see Philippians 2).

Image result for paralyticIn the next chapter Redd addresses our felt needs and deepest need. He begins with the story of his family’s visit to Williamsburg and his daughter’s amazement. Each experience overwhelmed her with joy, but there was more to discover. This is the chapter I wish I’d read a week before I did read it because he addressed my sermon text. The paralyzed man in Mark 2 had felt needs. He was helpless and dependent on others. He wanted to walk. Jesus addressed his deepest needs too: pardon. Like Mark’s original audience, we need to learn more about who Jesus is and what Jesus does that we may be overwhelmed with joy like Redd’s daughter.

His felt need was relieved. Don’t worry, he’d have more. But Jesus revealed that He addresses those deepest needs so we’ll bring those to him. But Jesus may not address our felt needs (difficult marriage, prodigal child, under-employment etc.). I hear the ghost of John Newton lurking in the background here. Jesus knows what we need to keep us humble, saved and set free. Those felt needs are “gifts, opportunities to encounter Christ as the answer to your deepest desire for wholeness, for the full experience of His grace.” As Paul discovered, His strength is made perfect (mature) in our weakness. In other words, we need to experience weakness in order to know/experience His strength.

Redd brings us to Mark 4 to talk about wholeness remade. He points us to Jesus who controls the natural world as seen in the calming of the storm and seas. He points us to Jesus who controls the personal in the restoration of the demoniac. Jesus is concerned about creation, and He’s concerned about us. His providence includes both nature and history as well as our lives and circumstances. He has the power to move us toward wholeness, a power we lack.

The next chapter illuminates wholeness in a discussion of light. He moves us from Genesis 1 to 1 John, Numbers 6 to Isaiah 9 and more. In this he speaks of heresy as an illegitimate claim to shed light on difficult subjects. Our lives need to come into the light. This means our disordered desires need to be brought into the light- not just in justification and sanctification. As Steve Brown told us often, “Demons die in the light.”

“Fragmentation is marked by secrecy and deceit, and it festers in the darkness.”

This is what concerns me about some aspects of our denominations response to Revoice. I fear it will drive people with SSA underground, out of the light and out of community with regard to their most pressing felt need. I’ve seen this too often, and it destroys lives and families. The false expectation of orientation change will drive those who don’t experience this underground. The shibboleths of not using the word “gay” or “homosexual” to express their sexual struggles will drive people underground. Rather than inviting people to come to us for help in their struggle, I think we are pushing them away by separating doctrinal accuracy from gospel acceptance and love. Having this nailed down doctrinally is necessary but insufficient to meaningfully serve our brothers and sisters who have these struggles.

Redd’s comments mirror this without connecting it to any particular set of circumstances.

“Light is not just about proclaiming truth; it is about being present when the darkness comes. … To be light, however, we need to be present in the places where darkness has a foothold. We need to be in the room when darkness makes its advance.”

We don’t simply expose sin, but help sinners! In defining sin, we cannnot overlook the people caught in that sin or in the process of mortifying that sin. We need to stand beside brothers and sisters struggling with racism, pornography, gluttony and greed. Yes, we all have different sins that we find disgusting and “unpardonable”. We need to see that person as Jesus sees them: redeemed, forgiven and being restored to wholeness. We are called into that mess, not simply to shout from the sideline all the ways they are wrong.

Redd concludes with the reality of glorification or wholeness everafter. I love the story he opens the chapter with about how his wife thought The Wizard of Oz ended with the death of the witch because her parents wanted to go to bed. For years she thought Dorothy never made it home.

We’ll make it home even though it doesn’t feel like it some days. The resurrection of Jesus matters as the proof of our future resurrection. Our bodies fail in the present. They don’t work right, experiencing the curse. We have birth defects or genetic disorders. As we age they waste away. We don’t seem to be moving toward wholeness but rather disintegration.

But the resurrection presents us with gospel hope that we will share in Jesus’ glory. It reminds us that we will be given new bodies fit for our inheritance. The future pulls us forward.

Redd briefly explores two tendencies in churches that take the Bible seriously. One is to focus on the intermediate state and focus on evangelism as the most important thing. We need to get people to heaven. The Christian life becomes organized around evangelism.

Another is to focus on the resurrection. Their focus is more holistic. They want to bring order to a chaotic world. They want to help people, particularly the oppressed and suffering.

We need to integrate the two tendencies, not play them against each other. We need to evangelize and care about and for the suffering. This means we embrace the intermediate state, but don’t settle for it.

“But if we don’t make it a priority to proclaim the gospel and show people the wonderful, desirable, life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, then we are neglecting our duty as the body of the Risen King to populate His kingdom. We are called to do both: we are called to build the kingdom and to populate it.”

There needs to be a wholeness to our ministry, not just our hearts. This is driven by our identity as Christ’s people, whose desires are being restored and have a mission.

This is a good book. He brings in personal anecdotes to clarify the theological points he’s making. He is clear and succinct. He brings in a breadth of biblical texts. He doesn’t lay out every possible way we should apply this, but does prime the pump for us. Stop and meditate, not just on the theology of the book but its implications in light of on-going controversies.

Wholeness is God’s gospel goal for us. Such wholeness should be the desire of our hearts, and the shape our mission. We are concerned not just for our wholeness but also the wholeness of others. We and they have not arrived yet and we must remember the reality of the already/not yet as we serve one another.

I wish he had spent more time fleshing this out. It would be the worthy subject for a book that addresses but it not tied to the issues of our day. This book is, however, a step in the right direction.

 

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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?

 

Read Full Post »


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

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

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

Candor- noun

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

Read Full Post »


I 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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

 

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.

Read Full Post »


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.]

Read Full Post »


One of my new study leave traditions is to read one of the volumes in Crossways’ series on theologians on the Christian life. Each volume looks at one man’s thought and tries to identify their contributions and understanding of how we are to live in Christ and in the world. So far I’ve read the volumes on John Newton (whom Sinclair Ferguson repeatedly called “perhaps the wisest pastor of the Church of England” in his series on Romans) and Herman Bavinck. This study leave it was Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards has long been a favorite of mine, in part because he was a favorite of R.C. Sproul’s. In seminary I took a class, The Theology of Edwards’ Sermons, with R.C.. We read so much of Edwards it may have ruined me for a spell. I haven’t read many of his sermons since then, but have gone back to volumes life The Religious Affections and Charity and Its Fruits.

Dane Ortund’s volume Edwards on the Christian Life boils Edwards down to being live to the beauty of God. He begins with the beauty of God, moves to regeneration as to how we become alive to God’s beauty and then focuses on its affects on us (love, joy, gentleness, obedience) as well as how we grow in our knowledge and experience of that beauty in Scripture, prayer and pilgrimage until finally our fullest experience of beauty in heaven.

This is one of the shorter volumes in the series which is ironic when we consider the great length of Edwards’ sermons and how complex his thought can be at times (The Freedom of the Will is a challenge).  In many ways this serves as an excellent primer on Edwards’ and is much shorter than Gerstner’s Rational Biblical Theology of Jonathan Edwards.

In many ways Ortlund paints an attractive (beautiful?) portrait of the Christian life from Edwards’ view. Who can argue with love, joy and gentleness? What Christian doesn’t want to be loving, joyful and gentle? Yet we cannot separate these fruit of the Spirit from the Word of God, nor the growth in obedience as we live as pilgrims in this world. Yet, missing here is explicit reference to work and marriage. One of Ortlund’s critiques of Edwards was a neglect of the doctrine of creation in favor of redemption. This is one evidence of that neglect. Our life can’t be abstracted out of work and marriage for those are the places we most need the fruit of the Spirit (as well as church life).

One of the ironies that Ortlund points out is that while Edwards’ sermon series on justification was the means for the Northampton revival prior to the Great Awakening, Edwards’ focus seemed to be on sanctification, God’s work in us (subjective), rather than justification, Christ’s work for us (objective). Perhaps this is one reason why the sacraments aren’t mentioned much here or in Edwards’ sermons. This leads to another of Ortlund’s criticisms- that Edwards was overly introspective and more frequently called us to examine ourselves than to look to Christ. Assurance was focused more on Christ’s work in us than for us. He flipped the emphasis. His work for us is the primary source of assurance, with His work in us as the secondary source.

One thing that Edwards focused on that the church tends to neglect is regeneration in which God makes us alive to His beauty. He takes a Reformed position of regeneration preceding, indeed producing, faith rather than the common evangelical view of faith producing regeneration as if that is God’s response to our faith. We need to recapture this more biblical understanding that reflects God’s sovereign grace.

In his criticisms at the end of the book, Ortlund notes that Edwards did have some imbalance in even this. He failed to emphasize that unregenerate people are still made in God’s image, and are not as bad as they can be. They are still capable of civil righteousness even though they are morally incapable of delighting in Christ and the gospel. Additionally, he seems to give “too much” to regeneration this side of glorification. There is a great tension in the Scriptures. It is a total change (every aspect of our being is affected by regeneration) but the change is not total. As regenerate people we want to obey and we grow in obedience but we also feel more acutely our failures to obey. We still, or rather have begun to, struggle with sin. There seems to be a hint of over-realized eschatology in Edwards on this point. But I understand, I think, why. At times I’ve preached like that to get that point across that we have been changed and Christ is at work in us by the Spirit (see Titus 2). Too often we can minimize our need for obedience as a fruit of salvation, and our ability to obey. We live in this tension and it can be easy for us to err on one side or the other. At other times in ministry I note the admission by the Westminster Standards and Heidelberg Catechism that our progress in this life is meager. This is because some people so beat themselves up over their sin. This person needs to hear of Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness and to have more realistic expectations. The lazy and slothful Christian needs to hear the call to obedience. Edwards presumably thought he was preaching to the latter and not the former.

Ortlund puts together a very good volume. He sees Edwards as one worth imitating in many areas. He points out some of his imperfections in the final chapter. One was missing, and that one is particularly pertinent in our particular day. Despite his theological convictions, Edwards (like many in his day) owned slaves. Perhaps the reason why Ortlund doesn’t mention this is because Edwards doesn’t address this in his sermons or writings (at least what I’ve read). Edwards didn’t defend slavery, but did practice it. This should humble us because while we don’t explicitly defend sinful practices, we can certainly practice them (often without realizing their sinfulness). This is one big bone for us to spit out as we consider his life, and it would be great if Ortlund mentioned it.

All in all this is another solid contribution to the series. It should enrich not only my life but my preaching. I am reminded of the need to integrate them more fully.

Read Full Post »


“A Church has no right to make anything a condition of membership which Christ has not made a condition of salvation.” A.A. Hodge

I came across this years ago when reading Hodge’s The Confession of Faith, a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Note: he wrote this in a commentary on a confession of faith.

Since I’m currently putting together SS material on the Westminster Standards I saw the red ink underlining and exclamation points in the margin. John Calvin expresses similar sentiments in his chapter on The Power of the Church in The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541). I decided to run an experiment. I put it on my FB page, and in a closed group I belong to connected to Calvinism. I was curious if there would be any difference in responses.

On my FB page, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were a few questions, but no big deal.

In the group, it was overwhelmingly negative. There were a number of misinterpretations of the quote. People were fairly unreasonable. I know, shocking conduct on the internet.

Here is a sampling:

“I disagree. attendance and membership are two different things. …theology is as important as doxology.. we are there to preserve both.. as a group we draw lines in the sand.. as an open group we do not.

“…maybe we should eliminate membership and just gather together without running church like a business. … If you expect the rent/mortgage on your church’s building to be paid, your pastor to be paid, the facility clean and in good repair, and your favorite ministries to be funded, then yeah, church needs to have a business component to it. Some churches take that too far and forget they’re a church, but churches have to run like a business to some degree.”

I also disagree. The elders are responsible to guard the flock, and you can’t keep the wolves out if you just admit members indiscriminately. Membership lists also have a use in determining who is eligible for church discipline. Just because a person sits in the pews doesn’t mean the church has authority to discipline them.

I would not expect a Pentecostal to accept me as a member since I do not accept their core beliefs about how the Spirit works and manifests itself. There should be some basic doctrinal agreement and some kind of pledge to serve to be a member.

“In order to worship in unity you need to agree on some things that aren’t salvation essentials. I don’t doubt the salvation of my Presbyterian brethren even though I doubt the legitimacy of their baptizing infants. They don’t doubt my salvation either but they would view my refusal to baptize my kids before conversion as disobedience to Christ’s command. Baptism is definitely not an essential doctrine but is practically speaking pretty important in fellowship and worship. …Messianic Christians and seventh day Adventists worship on Saturday, and think we’re misinterpreting the New Covenant when we worship on Sunday. They probably don’t doubt our salvation and in many cases we don’t doubt theirs, but it’d be pretty difficult to worship together weekly because they wouldn’t want to gather on our day nor we on theirs.”

“Nobody has to attend our church regularly in order to be saved, nobody has to agree to our church’s confession and member’s covenant to be saved, even baptism is not a requirement in order to be saved. So obviously this statement as it appears is false. But I wonder if it is explained in context in a way that might show it to have a true meaning.

We see an avalanche of erroneous assumptions, worse-case scenarios and oddities marshaled to reject Hodge’s premise.

What does Hodge mean? What doesn’t he mean?

These words begin that paragraph:

“In all Churches a distinction is made between the terms upon which private members are admitted to membership, and the terms upon which office-bearers are admitted to their sacred trusts of teaching and ruling.”

Hodge is writing a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. He believes in the use of Confessions and Creeds. He believes churches should have and use a Confession of Faith. He held to the Westminster Confession.

So, Hodge is NOT arguing that churches shouldn’t have a confession.

Hodge recognizes the distinction between members and officers. Members are held to a higher standard. He is speaking of the Confession, not extra-biblical conditions (keep reading). The Confession must be accepted, and taught, by the leadership of the church.

What the quote is saying, in part, is that holding to (subscription) the Confession (or any confession) should not be a requirement of membership. There are some denominations, wanting to limit doctrinal controversy. I used to be a pastor in the ARP and the membership questions included: “Do you accept the doctrines and principles of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, for far as you understand them, as agreeable to and founded on the Word of God?”  A confusing qualifier to be sure. The URC requires membership subscribe to the Three Forms of Membership. I was surprised upon joining the PCA that there was no similar vow. Many wish there was one, but I tend to think there shouldn’t be.

This does not mean that Hodge didn’t think members didn’t have to believe anything. They had to believe anything necessary for saving faith. The Westminster Confession includes things necessary for saving faith, but has far more in there. The additional topics are for our well-being rather than our salvation. We should require faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as God incarnate & part of the Trinity, who died and rose again. We should also require repentance as well. And baptism as included in the Great Commission. In other words, as far as we can tell, comunicate members should be Christians.

The other thing Hodge is (may be) saying is that membership should not bind the conscience in any way not required for salvation. Some church membership vows include abstinence from alcohol, smoking or dancing. These are not requirements for salvation (or sanctification).

In speaking about “church constitutions” Calvin argues in this way:

“So we must rapidly conclude as we argued earlier that, where God is concerned, our consciences are in no way compelled or obligated by any such constitutions. Their aim is to bind our souls before Go and to lay duties upon us, as if the things which they commanded were essential for salvation. Such today are all those constitutions called ‘church constitutions which they say are necessary if God is to be truly honored and served. They are countless in number, and make for equally countless bonds which keep souls imprisoned.”

If you think it wise not to drink alcohol, or dance or have the occasional cigar, you are able and free to make that decision for yourself. What you are not free to do is to bind the conscience of others to the same extra-biblical command. No church is free to so bind the conscience of its members. The doctrine of Christian Freedom needs to be taught in churches so members won’t fight over these matters (like the discussions I’d had as a young Christian with people who hated Christian rock, or secular music). You don’t resolve the argument biblically by binding consciences. “So you won’t fight about a beer with your pizza, we’ll just prohibit drinking altogether.” Too many churches take this very route and sin against God and their members.

Back to Confessions. Church members should know that the church has a confession, and that the teaching of the church will conform to that confession. I cover this in our membership class. I give them a copy of the Westminster Standards.

Some members will already agree with the Confession. That’s great! But I hope that many members are younger Christians. We are not a Reformed refuge where you need the secret password (John Calvin Owen & Newton). I see holding to the Confession as one of the goals of my teaching. I want people to move toward the Confession, understand it better and increasingly affirm it as a summary of Scripture. We can’t demand that as a condition of membership, however. We should never say to a Christian, you can’t be a member here. We may say, this is what we teach. If you are willing to discover more about this great. But if you fight about it, this may not be where your membership should be. Just as we offer Christ’s Table, this is Christ’s church. We may be Presbyterians, but can’t restrict membership to Presbyterians. I want people to grow in & into their faith in my congregation.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »