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Posts Tagged ‘sanctification’


This time last year the internet and FB groups were abuzz with discussion and disagreement about Revoice. Now we have the sequel as a number of PCA presbyteries are putting out their reports evaluating the Revoice conference. Unlike last year there is evidence to go on instead of speculation and fear.

One of the more weighty reports is the Central Carolina Presbytery report. It is relatively brief, focused and generally fair. I don’t say that last thing to impute wrong-doing. I’ll explain it as we go through.

For those who say “What is Revoice?” that is a complicated question. The answer can sometimes seem like the old proverb about blind people describing it based on the one part they hold. “A tree!” “No, a snake.” “I am holding a rope.” It is an elephant but those individuals have partial knowledge.

It does refer to a conference held at Memorial Presbyterian Church (PCA) in July of 2018. After the initial planning of the conference, Revoice was formed as an organization. This order of actions may explain some (not all) of the lack of clarity regarding their purpose(s). They have scheduled another conference in 2019, which will not be hosted by a church. They also have a new advisory board.

In addition to hosting the event, the pastor of Memorial was a speaker at the initial event. A professor from the denominational seminary was the speaker for a workshop. He was asked because he is particularly qualified to speak to his topic based on his Tyndale Commentary of the Old Testament volume on Leviticus. Dr. Sklar spoke about the continuing relevance of the laws against homosexuality from Leviticus 18 and 20. These connections to the PCA created the false impression that it was a “PCA event”, sponsored or authorized. The church was a host sight, and hosted many events from outside groups. As the Missouri Presbytery ruled, they should have used more discernment and wisdom when approving this.

Their stated goal was misunderstood, as well as other elements of their language or vocabulary. Here is their recently updated purpose:

To support and encourage gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians—as well as those who love them—so that all in the Church might be empowered to live in gospel unity while observing the historic Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.

They observe the historic doctrines of marriage and sexuality. This is an important thing to keep in mind. This means that they believe and teach that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that sexual activity is to be limited to the marriage relationship.

But the controversy comes with “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other same-sex attracted Christians”. Their use of those terms creates lots of heat and very little light.

Let’s pause for a moment because I’ve gotten ahead of myself. The Central Carolina study committee limited their work to the main speakers and their sessions. I understand, there were too many workshops to exhaustively examine. The downside of that is that Dr. Sklar was not vindicated as I desired to see happen. I did see one of the more controversial workshops having to do with “queer treasure” being brought into the kingdom. That workshop didn’t address that topic until the last few minutes, and I was still confused. It most mostly a sociological history of homosexuality in America.

They examined messaged by Matthew Lee Anderson, Ron Belgau, Brother Trout, Johanna Finnegan, Eve Tushnet, Nat Collins and Wesley Hill. Wesley Hill is one of the keynote speakers based on how influential his book Washed and Waiting was to the Revoice Founders.

As the Committee notes, this is a very diverse group of people. It is ecumenical in nature. Therefore they don’t speak from a unified set of beliefs beyond basic Christianity. I think this explains some of the lack of clarity as well. But they do represent a diverse set of opinions on topics like sanctification.

Anderson, for instance, talked about “sanctifying our illicit desire”. It would be much better to say we mortify or put to death our illicit desire. Illicit desires are those that we more and more die to. We more and more live to righteous desires.

I wish they had explored his talk more to see if he’s saying this in a way similar to the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sanctification, or as those those “illicit desires” somehow become good.

Question 35: What is sanctification?
Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Belgau sees same sex attraction as a produce of the fall and needing to be mortified. Brother Trout focused on seeing oneself in the Story such that we have value and direction about how to live beyond the “do’s and don’ts”. Finegan touched largely on issues of language and identity. She also addresses what change a gay person should normally expect to see as they are drawn closer to Jesus. For her, the reality of SSA is part of God’s sovereignty to experience their weakness and seek Him. She also spoke about learning to agree with God when He speaks in His word.

Tushnet sought to provide wisdom for same sex friendships from some of the friendships we find in Scripture. This means she isn’t viewing them as romantic relationships. These become a goal for people. Secondly she wanted to comfort people from God’s love for the marginalized.

Nate Collins’ message was about lament, and touched on some potentially controversial areas when he talked about church leadership. Both Jesus and Jeremiah lamented the corrupt leaders of God’s people. Surely, many pastors and elders have not treated repentant people who struggle with SSA well. Surely some have made the nuclear family into an idol. Many have heard these things and been quite upset. But he does call those who have SSA to suffer with Jesus, to take up the cruciform life.

Hill spoke about the woman caught in adultery to address hope in the midst of shame. He noted that Jesus was not soft on sin. Jesus sees all sinners as needing grace, not some more than others. But Jesus frees her to live a new life.

The Study Committee organized their analysis around five themes:

  • Desire and temptation
  • Labels and identity
  • Spiritual friendship
  • Homosexuality as a gift
  • The pervasiveness of pain

The section on desire and temptation is the longest and most complex.

The Revoice speakers we heard were all united in their belief that the Bible does not allow for gay marriage and that sexual activity between persons of the same-sex is forbidden by God. Given the mood of our culture, not to mention the many revisionist theologies clamoring for our attention, Revoice’s affirmation of certain aspects of biblical sexuality is to be highly commended. We thank God for their commitment to an orthodox, Christian understanding of marriage, especially when such a commitment comes at a personal cost for many in the Revoice movement. (pp. 6)

They turned to the question of: desire for sin or sinful desire? Some may wonder about the difference. Are they desires to do something that is sinful, or are the desires sinful in themselves? The speakers seemed to give different answers to that question. Some spoke of permissible forms of same sex desire. Others spoke of redirecting or redeploying those desires. Others about mortifying those same desires. This is a key area where the ecumenical flavor wrecks havoc.

This is a key area of disagreement among Christians who hold to a traditional understanding of marriage: are same-sex desires sinful, or are they merely disordered desires that become sinful when acted upon? (pp. 6)

TImage result for do not enterhis is a key area, and has large implications for how to care for people as pastors (and elders). One critique that I have of this report is that it polarizes this question. In other words, there are more than two answers to this question. Is temptation sin from the get go, or only when acted upon? fits the two pole theory. But some would argue that temptation is not sin but can become sin in thought (aka lust in this case) even though you don’t act upon it.

One way of looking at this is that temptation is a door. You can see the sin in the other room. Do you close the door and walk away, mortifying that desire? Or do you “enter into temptation” and become carried away. by your lust so you are sinning in thought, and may then sin in deed as well?

This is a difficult question. I reject that idea that it is only sin when acted upon (unless you mean entering into temptation). To lust is clearly sin.

Back to the report.

Most of our disagreements with Revoice start with the theological conviction that the desire for an illicit end is itself an illicit desire. (pp. 6)

They begin with the use of “covet” particularly in the tenth commandment. They then discuss sinful desires or lusts. I prefer the term inordinate desire since the word seems to indicate uppermost desires. The question is: are temptation and lust, or inordinate desires identical? The study committee is answering yes.

Question 18: Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
Answer: The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

They rightly note that we are guilty not only for our sins, but also for original sin. We are corrupt in Adam and our sinful desires flow out of that original corruption. Or as the Catechism says “actual transgressions which proceed from it.” There is a distinction made between indwelling sin or the remnant of sin and the actual transgressions. Is temptation transgression?

The Report brings us to the difference between Roman Catholic Theology and Reformed Theology. In Catholic theology the inclination to sin is called concupiscence. It is to be wrestled with but does no harm unless consented to. Our disordered desires are a result of the fall, but do not become sin (actual transgressions) without our consent (though this is not necessarily defined in the report).

The Study Committee call upon John Calvin, Herman Bavinck and John Owen not only as representatives of Reformed Theology but also to indicate the uniformity of Reformed Thought in disagreeing with Rome AND saying these “inordinate desires” (Calvin) are in fact sin.

I would say that inordinate desires are sin as well. But I’m not identifying temptation with inordinate desires. Using James 1, they ask if ‘temptation’ provides that moral space.

On the face of it, this passage seems to indicate that it is possible to be tempted by evil desires without sinning. Only when the will consents to the temptation does the alluring and enticing desire become sin. Although a plausible reading of the text at first glance, the Reformed tradition has consistently interpreted James 1:14-15 along different lines. (pp. 8)

It gets murkier as we seek to separate bone from marrow. I will confess, my head starts to hurt.

For Calvin, there is indwelling sin (the temptations caused by desire in v. 14b), actual sin (the birth of sin in v. 15a), and—mentioned in the next paragraph in his Commentary—“perfected” sin (the deadly fully grown sin in v. 15b). When James talks about temptations leading to sin, he does not mean that the temptation (in this case) is itself morally neutral.(pp. 8)

TImage may contain: one or more people, people sitting and indoorhey rightly note that both “sin” and “temptation” have ranges of meaning. “Sin” can refer to both the condition and the transgression (want of conformity unto or breaking of God’s law). Temptation can refer to external pressure, such as Jesus experienced yet without sin (Hebrews 4:25). It can also refer to internal pressure, desire that arises from within, which Jesus did not experience because He did not have a sinful nature.

In reading Owen again for a recent sermon on this passage and subject, I wrestled with his nuance and distinctions. They do too!

The parsing of sin and temptation can be thorny, which is why Reformed theologians have typically explained these issues with careful nuance. A case in point is John Owen’s handling of temptation in The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (1667). Once again, James 1:14-15 is a pivotal text:

“Now, what is it to be tempted? It is to have that proposed to man’s consideration which, if he close, it is evil, it is sin unto him. This is sin’s trade: epithumei—“it lusts.” It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it does not wholly prevail.”

Up to this point, it sounds like Owen may consider temptation caused by lusts to be morally neutral, to be a kind of spiritual struggle that cannot be called sin until we acquiesce to its allurement. But notice what Owen says next:

“Now, when such a temptation comes from without, it is unto the soul an indifferent thing, neither good nor evil, unless it be consented unto; but the very proposal from within, it being the soul’s own act, is its sin.” (pp. 9)

As I considered Owen’s description phrase “enter into temptation” every example he used the person not only was tempted by acted upon that temptation. Yet, to be simply tempted is not inevitably to commit the act. Yet, they reach this conclusion:

What makes temptation a “temptation” is that it tempts us to actual, observable sin, but this does not make the temptation something other than sin. (pp. 9)

They continue with Owen distinguishing between passive and active temptation. The former is from without, and the latter from within. But here is their conclusion of this section:

Each step of the process is worse than the next. We should not think that the entanglement of the affections is equivalent to obstinately pursuing a life of sin. There is moral space to be found between each step. And yet, this process is not one that moves from innocence to sin, but rather one that sees indwelling sin move from the mind to the affections to the will and finally to the outward working of sin in the life (and death) of a person.

It sounds to me that while admitting moral space, each step is in itself sin (transgression) such that one is heaping up sins until the outward working of sin.

I may be misunderstanding, but they speak of the uniform rejection of the Roman doctrine (rightly!) and seem to imply this is also the uniform doctrine of the Reformed heritage. If that is the case, I argue this is the overreach.

For instance, in her book Openness Unhindered, Rosaria Butterfield writes:

The Bible is clear that all sex outside of biblical marriage is a sin. The Bible is also transparent that homosociality is not sinful. In addition, temptation is not a sin, but temptations to sin are never good. They are never from God. Therefore patterns of temptation can never be sanctified. (pp. 123)

Later on that page she does say that homosexual lust is a sin. Heterosexual lust as well. She’s drawing a distinction between temptation and lust, calling the latter a sin but not the former.

In his book Holy Sexuality, Christopher Yuan reads Owen a slightly different way as well.

“If you’re wracked with guilt for simply having same-sex sexual temptations, hear these words from John Owen: “It is impossible that we should be so freed from temptation a not to be at all tempted.” Being tempted doesn’t mean you have little faith because it is quite ordinary and human to be tempted. The truth of the matter is that temptations are not sinful.” (pp. 57)

You find similar statements in Nancy Pearcey’s Love Thy Body and Sam Allberry’s Is God Anti-Gay?. If we look at the North Florida Presbytery’s Study Committee Report on Same-Sex Attraction we read:

That said, it is important to recognize that temptation is always an inducement to do wrong (1 Corinthians 7.5; Galatians 6.1; 1 Timothy 6.9; James 1.14-15). While the experience of temptation does not incur guilt, the temptation it self is not neutral. Temptation entices the Christian to transgress God’s will. In our sinful weakness, there is a short distance between sexual temptation and lust (Matthew 5.27-28). Therefore, it is wise to exercise caution and vigilance with all temptations to sexual immorality and to set our hearts and minds to what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, and praiseworthy(Philippians 4.8; Colossians 3.1-4).

They put moral space between temptation and lust, the later of which incurs guilt.

Before I leave this subject, Kevin DeYoung wrote a blog post in 2013 entitled Temptation is Not the Same as Sin. He is one of the members of the Central Carolina Presbytery study committee. He may have changed his views since it has been 6 years. But the whole article creates that moral space. Here is part of his rationale:

Debts and trespasses require forgiveness; temptation needs deliverance. They are not the same. Just because you are struggling with temptation does not mean you are mired in sin. The spiritual progression in the human heart goes from desire to temptation to sin to death (James 1:14-15). We are told to flee temptation, not because we’ve already sinned, but because in the midst of temptation we desperately feel like we want to.

To sum this up. Some of the teaching of Revoice embraces the Roman Catholic view of concupiscence which states it is not a sin until consented and acted upon. We believe this view to be wrong.

We believe that temptations do arise from our sinful nature. Those should be mortified. There is some disagreement as to whether they are “a sin” or transgression. But based on the 10th commandment, among other passages, we should recognize that lust, or covetousness, is a sin because it is idolatry or an inordinate desire. Whether that is homosexual lust, heterosexual lust or the coveting of my neighbor’s possessions, it is a sin. We add further sin if we satisfy that lust.

 

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I’ve been swamped with reading lately, and this has meant too many books in process. My brain has been pulled in too many directions. To top it off I decided to preach on a series of “hot button” issues from Genesis. This meant reading a bunch of new books to prepare for these varied subjects.

IGod and the Transgender Debaten one case it meant picking up one of those books that I had started but had been languishing in the cabinet in our kitchen in which I keep my Bible and the books I’m currently reading at home. When God and the Transgender Debate: What Does the Bible Actually Say about Gender Identity? (GTD) by Andrew T. Walker came out I bought it and started to read it. After a few chapters, it sat there waiting while I focused on other reading that was more pressing.

Since I was preaching on gender last Sunday, I resumed my reading of GTD.

The book has evangelical & Reformed street cred with a forward by Al Mohler and book cover blurbs by Rosaria Butterfield, Russell Moore, Sam Allberry, Trevin Wax and (oddly) Rod Dreher. Walker will express a conservative and compassionate perspective on this issue. He avoids extremes that can so often be a trap for us. We tend to pit truth against love. He wants to uphold truth AND express love toward people who experience gender dysphoria.

He begins with Compassion and refers to Jesus’ quotation from Isaiah: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Jesus is the Truth and therefore spoke the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Yet, Jesus was also compassionate toward the suffering. His is the example for ministry we should follow, but often don’t. In the Gospels we see Jesus healing people with no hope for healing, giving strength to burdened people, and engaging with the outcasts of society (due to disease or sin).

Walker wrote this book because of the cultural changes in the West. “Society is now attempting to help people who experience doubts and struggles with their gender identity, rather than push those people to the margins.” I’d go farther- they are pushing those people to the center. But I won’t quibble too much. He wants to help us think through these issues biblically, and love our friends, children or neighbors who experience these doubts and struggles.

“… remember that the God who speaks to you in the Bible is the same God who loves you so much that he came, lived, and even died to strengthen bruised reeds and fan flickering flames.”

Image result for bruce jennerBringing up Bruce Jenner, Walker then addresses How We Got Where We Are. Due to his cultural & historical stature, you couldn’t avoid media coverage of his dysphoria and going further to transgender. A public discussion ensued that was not limited to adults. Children, thru bathroom laws and sex ed courses, were being dragged into a discussion they are not able to process intellectually and ethically. Relativism has burrowed deep into our cultural understanding so that people with “narrow views” are pushed to the margins. Ours is now a post-Christian culture that doesn’t understand the Scriptures and wants to marginalize those who are still connected with this former majority worldview. Radical individualism and the sexual revolution are turning ethics upside down. We also see the influence of Gnosticism as the body becomes meaningless both in what it says (as part of the Book of Creation) and what we do to it. The person, their feelings or sense of self, matter more than the body (Nancy Pearcey explores this Cartesian dualism in post-modernism in her recent book Love Thy Body).

He then moves to The Language. He provides the working definitions he will use in the book for:

  • sex
  • gender
  • gender identity
  • gender dysphoria
  • transgender

This helps dispel any confusion about what he means going forward. I wish more people would do this. I was frustrated yesterday with a page in Rosaria Butterfield’s Openness Unhindered where she didn’t define a key term in a discussion of temptation & sin.

The next chapter, On Making a Decision, focuses on how we can or should sort thru these issues by asking three important questions.

  • Authority: who has the right to tell me what to do?
  • Knowledge: who knows what is best for me to do?
  • Trustworthiness: who loves me and wants what is best for me?

Relying on ourselves is not the best answer to these questions. We have all followed our hearts (desires, feelings, great ideas) into disaster. He points us to the Bible which tells us a different, better, all encompassing Story that makes sense of our stories.

“A crucified Creator is a God who has the authority to tell us what to do, who has the wisdom to know what is best for us, and who has proved that he can be trusted to tell us what is best for us.”

He then discusses creation in Well-Designed. He covers the Story in declaring us made in God’s image, made with care. The blueprint for humanity is two complementary genders. God had a good purpose in created humanity this way. Our bodies, as part of creation, declare His praises (Ps. 19). He does caution us against baptizing cultural stereotypes in our discussion of gender. Sometimes we create dysphoria because of extreme views of masculinity and femininity. There will always be outliers. They don’t cease to be their biological gender. Jesus affirmed the creational design in a discussion of divorce in Matthew 19.

DRelated imageue to the fall & curse we see Beauty and Brokenness. We are glorious ruins, as Francis Schaeffer said. All of creation is a glorious ruin. Therefore we are beautiful but also broken. Adam & Eve’s Story is ours as well. We suffer from darkened understanding, futile thinking and disordered desires. We also suffer from broken bodies. There are people with genetic disorders. There are also people who due to darkened understanding experience real distress about their gender identity. “But experiencing that feeling does not mean that feeding it and acting on it is best, or right.” (pp. 67) In other words, some experience dysphoria, but some who experience it also act on it and try to live as the opposite of their biological sex. Dysphoria is a manifestation of our brokenness just like the rest of creation. We leave out God and creation from our thinking and people can live as if the dysphoria is speaking truth instead of lies to us.

Jesus offers us A Better Future than following our sometimes shifting and creation denying feelings and thoughts. Faith in Christ as our Savior unites us with Jesus who makes us a new creation. In sanctification we are renewed in God’s image, a process which is not completed in this earthly existence. Therefore we all wait for freedom, including many who struggle with gender dysphoria. With all of creation, we all groan. In Romans 8 the Spirit of Jesus groans with us in prayer as we struggle with the futility of creation due to the curse. We have the hope of the resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, when the futility will be removed from creation and our  bodies.

He then shifts to Love Your Neighbor. We should not use the truth as a club. Our attitude toward those who experience dysphoria or are transgender matters. Just like us, those people are made in God’s image and have dignity. We are therefore called to love both our neighbors and our enemies. We are to love truth and people. Often we love truth but are motivated by self-righteousness, pride, fear or a desire to win.

Walker admits that there are No Easy Paths for those who are transgender or experience gender dysphoria. The more boundaries you’ve broken, the more difficult it will be. Some are content to change clothing and names. Some use hormones to change themselves. Others change their body with surgery. Coming to faith and sorting out what next becomes increasingly complex. They require great wisdom and a loving community of faith. There are two aspects to this. First, all Christians will bear crosses. Some are heavier than others, but all are to deny themselves as part of the ordinary Christian life. Second, this cross bearing is not forever. The resurrection will resolve all these outstanding issues we experience in an already/not yet salvation.

This is Challenging to the Church. We will need to face our own self-righteousness and fear to become welcoming toward people who believe but still struggle. They don’t want to. Just like we may not want to struggle with anger, pride, passivity, pornography etc. While set apart and devoted to Christ, we are not perfectly sanctified. We will need to listen to other people’s struggles and groan with them. We bear their burdens with them.

Walker continues with Speaking to Children, and then Tough Questions to wrap up the book.

This is a readable book. It is not overly technical but accessible to people who aren’t scientists or doctors. He offers clear, biblical truth. He also calls us to compassion in how we speak to people. This is not a “these people are bad” book. But one that wrestles with the reality of our fallenness (original sin), and the sufficiency of Christ. He unfolds this in a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation paradigm. This is a book deserving to be read by pastors and laypeople alike. I bought an additional copy for our library. Perhaps you should too.

Here is the sermon on the subject.

 

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As a former Particular Baptist, as they used to be called, I had an appreciation for Charles Spurgeon. While in seminary I did a paper in one of my history classes examining his sermons during the revival of 1859 to see how the doctrines of grace (aka Calvinism) were prominent and therefore consistent with revival.

I’ve found Michael Reeves’ books, Delighting in the Trinity and Rejoicing in Christ, to be engaging and informative. The former helped (re)shape my grasp of missions (including a critique/weakness of Christopher Wright’s tome, in other words, where is the love?).

So, imagine my pleasure in seeing that Reeves wrote the new book Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ. I decided I would read it during my vacation ritual this summer.

Reeves had no easy task in trying to put this together. The vast majority of Spurgeon’s writing are the transcriptions of his sermons. Not quite something you can easily read and grasp a comprehensive understanding of how he understood the Christian life. He is an unenviable position as he writes this book.

One of the interesting things about this series is that often the volume is written by someone outside of the subject’s tradition. Trueman, a Presbyterian, wrote the volume on Luther. Here Reeves, an Anglican, writes about the Calvinistic Baptist.

The sections cover the themes of Christ the Center, The New Birth and The New Life. As you might imagine, regeneration seems to be the central motif in Spurgeon’s view of the Christian life as understood by Reeves. We must become new people with new passions and all of that happens in Christ. Or thru Christ since the focus is not quite union with Christ. Explicitly, anyway.

He begins with a very brief biography of Spurgeon. He was a man of great passion, who felt greatly. He was known for a great sense of humor. While he used some humor in the pulpit, he was not a comedian as some pastors seem to think of themselves. Like Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon loved creation and allusions and illustration to trees, flowers, animals and more filled his sermons. Spurgeon also grew up reading the books in his grandfather’s library. Many of these were Puritan books, and he developed a great fondness for Bunyan, particularly Pilgrim’s Progress.

Christ the Center

He viewed the Bible as the Word of Christ about Christ. As a result, the Bible did not compete with Christ for our affections, but is the revelation of Christ for us to know Christ. To not love the Bible is to not love Christ. The Bible is living and active as a result. Jesus changes lives through the Bible.

In terms of translations, he held the KJV in high esteem, but not without criticism. There were times the translation frustrated him (as happens with me concerning other translations at times).

Spurgeon affirmed that not only did the OT point us toward Christ, but that OT saints are our brothers and sisters. We shared the same faith. We just know more of the faith. Christ is the center of our faith, and all doctrines find their proper orbit around Christ.

“A Christless gospel is no gospel and a Christless discourse is the cause of merriment to devils.”

He was fully Trinitarian. But we must remember that Christ alone is the Mediator between God and man. It was Christ who became human, obeyed, died and was raised for our salvation. We come to the Father thru the Son, so Spurgeon preached Christ.

As I mentioned before, he grew up reading Puritans. His theology was Puritan. Aside from the issue of baptism (and the ecclesiology that flowed from that)he was “Reformed”. He had a great appreciation for Calvin and understood Calvinism to be a shorthand for the gospel. He understood them as they were intended to be: Christ-centered.

Though he was a Baptist, he affirmed (and perhaps exceeded) the WCF concerning elect infants dying in infancy being saved by the work of Christ. In one place he extended this to all infants dying in infancy. I’m not sure we have biblical warrant for this extension, though I’d like it to be true.

Spurgeon was not dogmatic about Calvinism however (not a Gnostic Calvinist). He would affirm other preachers as long as they preached Christ. Reeves noted a sermon Spurgeon heard by a priest in Belgium. The priest preached Christ, much to Spurgeon’s delight.

Preaching was more than informing people about Christ. He saw his goal to draw people to Christ. While you have content, the target is the heart. This, in some strange way I’d love to talk to him about, was why he discourage sermon series. I was scratching my head. Sermon series can’t be used by God to transform lives?

The New Birth

Spurgeon was baptized as an infant. Like many new converts today, he read the Bible and believed he should be baptized after he believed. Spurgeon held on to his baptistic convictions despite the fact that many of the theologians he loved and respected practiced infant baptism. Reeves places this within the context of baptismal regeneration and a return to Roman Catholicism. Reformed paedobaptists don’t hold to baptismal regeneration. But it seems the fear of Roman Catholicism was strong in Spurgeon (I once was there too).

We see there the disconnect, or at least I do. He held that we are brothers and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David and the rest. The covenantal principle seen in the sign of circumcision is that children receive the sign and seal of “righteousness by faith” (Rom. 4). Abraham had the faith, and the sign called his children to the faith. But Spurgeon breaks faith, so to speak, on this principle. He viewed baptism as a sign of our faith, not God’s promise. At times he warned of the baptismal font being a rival of Christ’s for paedobaptists. The same could be said for many of the credobaptists I’ve heard. So there seems to be another inconsistency.

I mentioned about the covenantal principle of visible and invisible church in the OT (and NT). Rather, he holds to the impossible prospect of the “pure church”. Credobaptism doesn’t create a regenerate church, as the rolls of many baptist churches indicate. Baptism doesn’t mean one possesses the reality to which the sign points, whether one holds to paedobaptism or credobaptism. The promise of the new covenant is isolated from how the NT actually speaks about the church (wheat & tares, for instance).

The new birth is necessitated by human sinfulness. We are not merely weakened by sin, but dead in sin and trespasses. We are hostile to Christ and the law in the unregenerate state. People are not neutral. God must grant new life for people to believe. Regeneration is a grace we receive, not because we’ve met any conditions but in order that we may believe. The Spirit uses the Word to give us this new life. He enlightens our minds; He shines His light into our hearts.

Without the cross, there is no regeneration. There is no salvation apart from atonement, by Christ. His focus on Christ’s death meant that he advocated for weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The message that saves is Christ crucified. It is also about the mortification of our sin in the present. Jesus aims to mortify our sin and give life to graces.

The New Life

The new birth necessarily creates a new life. The Spirit doesn’t give us new life and walk away. We are increasingly drawn to Christ and away from the sin that so easily entangles.

Another aspect of our new life is prayer as an expression of our union with Christ. Our communion with Christ doesn’t pull us out of the world but calls us into the world just as Christ went into the world.

“… nobody mixed with sinners more than our Lord.”

Reeves then returns to sanctification. Spurgeon held to the blood of Christ as the “double cure”: free from sin’s guilt and power. Christ’s blood removes our guilt, but in Christ we also died to sin. Saved by grace thru faith, we also begin to walk in the good works prepared for us. This new life is a gift, but we live it. The Spirit isn’t living for us.

Spurgeon made much of joy. It reveals that we serve a great Savior. It is the strength for our service to Him. Complaining and despondency rob us of joy, strength and vitality. But Spurgeon knew this first hand, as Reeves points out later.

As we grow into Christ, we increasingly hate our sin. And increasingly see our sinfulness. We become more sensitive to sin and recognize our sinful motives and not simply actions.

“As the man loves God more, and becomes more like Christ, he takes greater delight in prayer.”

Reeves then returns to prayer with its own chapter. Spurgeon saw prayer as essential, not only to the Christian life, but to ministry. The Monday Prayer meeting was attended by over a thousand people each week. He saw it as the engine of the ministry. It is the battlefield between faith and unbelief. Spurgeon, who didn’t like planned out sermon series, also didn’t like planned out prayers either. He preferred spontaneity. I think this is a more a matter of preference and personality instead of principle.

Reeves then shifts to Bunyan’s influence. We are pilgrims. But we are not solitary pilgrims. We are a community of pilgrims. But we are engaged in warfare- an army of pilgrims. The warfare motif wasn’t reserved for sermons, but Reeves shows that it influenced his private prayer journals. His was an active faith. Spurgeon oversaw “the Pastor’s College, the Stockwell Orphanage, seventeen almshouses for poor and elderly women, the Colportage Association, and a day school for children.” This was just the tip of the iceberg. He didn’t expect the government to solve his society’s problems. He expected the church engage them, and led the charge.

But life is not all flowers and sunshine. Afflictions come and spirits falter. Depression can come home to roost whether by circumstance or medical conditions. Spurgeon fought with depression. The incident in Surrey Gardens, a “joke” that panicked the crowd resulting in 7 dead and 28 severely injured, resulted in clinical depression. Spurgeon also suffered from “a burning kidney inflammation called Bright’s Disease, as well as gout, rheumatism, and neuritis.” At times he would be unable to preach for extended periods of time.

One reason we suffer is that Jesus suffered. The cross comes before the crown for us too, according to Paul. It is a sign of our adoption and union with Christ. We also learn to depend on Christ rather than ourselves. God also prepares us for greater ministry thru humility and empathy.

He wraps up with the hope of glory. This is not our best life now. Spurgeon likely was a premillenialist, but clearly not a dispensationalist. He was not into speculation. He was into focusing on Christ.

Summing Up

Perhaps it was my high expectations, but I finished the book thinking “That’s it?”. At no point was I stopping to ponder something more fully. This is the first volume in the series that disappointed me. This is not a volume I would be inclined to recommend to anyone (my favorite remains the volume on John Newton). This was more theoretical and geared toward the pastor, in my opinion. It also seemed to skim the surface.

As I mentioned above, the source material is so vast but due to his habit of not systematically preaching through the Scriptures. It is seemingly impossible to sort through and “systemize” the material. This is still unfortunate.

 

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In my typical vacation mode, I’m reading another in the series “on the Christian life.” This vacation I’m reading Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ by Michael Reeves. Reeves’ goal is to communicate about Spurgeon’s views, not offering correctives or counter-points. While I agree with much of what Spurgeon held regarding preaching, there were enough things I wanted to offer a counter-point to that this merited its own blog post.

Spurgeon began to preach as essentially a newly converted person. Prior to his conversion he’d read much from his grandfather’s library. This is where his love of the Puritans came from. Spurgeon did not preach like a Puritan.

For instance, I’m also reading Christian Love by Hugh Binning. After his treatise on the subject there are 3 from his sermon series on Romans 8:1-15. They are taken from his 40 sermons on that passage. Yes, 40! The better part of a year on 14 verses, by a man who would die at 26.  Spurgeon did not do such lengthy series.

“The special work of our ministry is to lay open Christ, to hold up the tapestry and unfold the mysteries of Christ.”

“It is the end (goal) of our calling to sue for a marriage between Christ and every soul. We are the friends of the bride to bring the church to him; and friend of the church, to bring Christ to them.”

In this regard, Spurgeon is spot on regarding the goal of preaching. We are to so reveal Christ as to present a Savior worth trusting, and encourage them to trust in Him for all things as revealed in the Scriptures.

In this way, preaching is not simply an information dump. Information is conveyed. We must explain the text, and explain Christ to them. But we are to preach for personal and congregational transformation.

“The object of all true preaching is the heart: we aim at divorcing the heart from sin, and wedding it to Christ. Our ministry has failed, and has not the divine seal set upon it, unless it makes men tremble, makes them sad, and then anon brings them to Christ, and causes them to rejoice.”

The rub is in some of the opinions he had about how that takes place.

Reeves notes a common criticism, that I have mentioned to others, that he wasn’t very exegetical. Reeves notes that prior to his sermon, in another part of the service he would give “a separate verse-by-verse exposition on the portion of Scripture from which his preaching text would be taken.” Or at least what he thought he would be preaching. At times he would admit to changing his text on the fly. This would disconnect the text from the exegesis. If it was a late, not last second change, then he wouldn’t have much time to do proper exegesis of the text. He’d inevitably have to do that on the fly. The prep work he’d done (and he did do plenty of that) would not be used, at least that week.

Spurgeon discouraged his students from preaching series. He didn’t plan out his sermons in advance. I often have my sermon texts lined up a few months out. He thought few preachers had the gifts to preach a series and engage the congregation’s attention for the duration. Spurgeon notes that even the gifted Joseph Caryl preached his congregation from 800 to 8 over the course of his series on Job. No mention is  given on how many sermons this included. I’m not advocating 5-6 years (or 16) in a series on a book of the Bible.

He believed that such sermon series didn’t address the immediate situation of the congregation.

When I plan a sermon series, I consider the “immediate” needs of the congregation and choose a book that addresses those things. Their immediate needs often include long-term needs that need more than a sermon by an extended period breaking up the ground, sowing and watering seed that it may bear the fruit we long to see. Some of those immediate needs may be met by a short book like Jonah, or a longer book like Romans.

I want to model Bible study as a collateral benefit of preaching. They begin, I hope, to see how thoughts flow through a book of the Bible. They aren’t seeing a text arise from the ether but in the overall theme of its authors, human and divine.

Surely the Holy Spirit is not bound by the time frame of a week to know what any congregation needs. As God who has eternally decreed whatsoever comes to pass, He can lead and guide me well in advance, not just on the spur of the moment. In my preaching, I frequently illustrate in ways I had not prepared, or go on an unplanned trail. So the Spirit is not stifled, but neither am I investing hours each week figuring out what text to preach. Rather I’m grappling with the text to discern what it means and how it applies to this group of people.

Christ can be just as preeminent in a series as in a weekly discerning of a text to preach. As he famously noted, just as all towns in England had a road leading to London, all text lead to Christ.

As pastors, we do well to remember that we “are not only laboring for Christ but in His stead.” As the Reformed Confessions indicate, the word preached is the Word of God. Christ is addressing His people thru us. He indicated (as another book I’m reading, Preaching to a Post-Everything World) we must love the people, the sinners, to whom we preach. We do not exercise a ministry of condemnation. We are not to provoke or exasperate them. But we are to plead with them so they turn from their sin to Christ in both conversion (justification) and consecration (sanctification).

He also indicates that we are to embody that which we preach. Here I think is an issue as well. We are to preach joy in Christ, joyfully. But this implies that in God’s providence we are not preaching to ourselves as well as to them. Often I can struggle because God brings me to the “school house” through the text.

For instance, I’m currently preaching through Philippians. While joy is a theme of Philippians, so are partnership in the Gospel particularly in the context of persecution and some level of congregational strife. They were to stand together, but apparently they weren’t.

In our congregation this has been a year filled with change. Change inevitably brings conflict. There has been some disagreement among us. I’m a sinner and struggling to not take it personally at times. I’m challenged to abound more and more in love toward people with whom there is disagreement. My preaching, therefore, is not bound to my emotions. I’m not being deceitful as I say these things, but am also in the struggle to define my life by God’s great Story rather than I own feelings, thoughts or story. I’m in process just like they are.

We do not preach as perfected men. We preach as men being perfected. God’s living and active sword cuts us too, in a surgical way, as we prepare and preach. I agree we should not be disingenuous, but neither are we to search for a text or subject we’ve mastered or that suits are emotions on a particular day. God is in control over the text, and our circumstances even leading up into that moment we walk into the pulpit (many a preacher gets a disheartening text, call or email while writing the sermon, Saturday evening or Sunday morning). We are called to bring the Word of God to bear even as we wrestle with our own sinfulness and need for the gospel.

So, I find these views of his to be driven by subjectivity. As we think of his life, as a man who struggled with depression, this seems particularly out of place or idealistic. It can crush a man instead of helping him trust that God uses even him, a jar of clay, to reveal the treasure of the gospel.

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We seem to be “good” at judging other people’s spiritual status. And pretty lousy at judging our own.

I think of some of the comments I see by Christians.

“President Trump can’t be a Christian because ….”. (I don’t know if Trump is actually a Christian, but that’s because I don’t know what he actually believes and whether it is orthodox).

“People who commit such & such a sin can’t be Christians.” These are usually grievous sins, but still.

We often do this to ourselves. “How can I be a Christian? I looked at porn/committed adultery/embezzled from work or church etc..” We lack assurance because we’ve begun to shift of confidence from Christ and His perfect righteousness to our own very imperfect righteousness.

I’m currently re-reading A Guide to Christian Living by John Calvin. It is taken from the 1544 edition of the Institutes. Chapter 1 is the Scriptural Foundations for Christian Living. In section 5, Perfection Should Be Our Aim,  Calvin addresses the progress or seemingly lack of progress ordinary Christians experience.

“I do not insist that evangelical perfection be attained before anyone can be regarded as a Christian. That would be too strict and severe a test. On that basis every living soul would be excluded from the church, for there is no one, whatever progress he has made, who does not come well short of the mark. Most people indeed have hardly advanced one step, yet they are not to be rejected on that account.”

Calvin argues against perfectionism here. It is not the claim of perfectionism, but the demand of perfectionism in view. While we must be clear about sin and the need for repentance, our standard for fellowship with others and their admittance into the church is not their performance but Christ.

TImage result for Christian Loveoday I was also reading Hugh Binning on Christian Love. He notes that we are not to see other Christians as they are with all their sins staining their clothes, but as stripped and clothed in Christ and His perfect righteousness by virtue of their union with Christ.

Returning to Calvin, he notes that even the best of Christians would be prohibited from membership. Not only does he say we are short of the mark, but well short of the mark. Not even close. Not a kick that bounces off the goal post, but WIDE right. And short.

Our progress in sanctification is slim. But you are not to think that you or your professing friend or neighbor isn’t a Christian because they committed a sin, or the same sin 490 times.

Sin is stubborn like that. It is deep down within us and not solved by resolutions or 7 steps (or 12). Our hope for freedom from sin is tied to the consummation, not conversion.

“What then? Our sights should be naturally set on the perfection which God commands. That should be the yardstick by which we measure all our actions, and that should be the goal for which we strive.”

Calvin is not a practical or theoretical antinomian. He’s not rejecting the law or its use for us. It is not used for our justification, or to admit people in the church. It continues to reveal sin to us, and in us. It continues to show us what Christ-likeness is like. It still has a role in the life of a Christian.

“But as long as we live in this earthly prison, none of us is strong or keen enough to hurry on as briskly as we ought. Most of us are so weak and feeble that we shuffle and stumble along, making little headway as we go.”

Union with Christ doesn’t make us uber-Christians. His strength is made perfect in our weakness. He sin daily in thought, word and deed. Sin easily entangles us (Heb. 12), so we all stumble in many ways (James 3). Habitual sins (those connected with a lifestyle or called addictions) don’t go away easily or quickly. Change is often incremental. There can be 3 steps forward and 1 or 2 back. “Little headway” he says. Do we say that? Do we act towards others as if he’s right?

Calvin encourages us to keep walking the path. Don’t give up because we sinned, again. Keep your eyes, he says, focused on the goal.

One key aspect we should not forget in the midst of this. “… not fooling ourselves with vain illusions or excusing our own vices.” Real Christians admit their sinfulness. They own their faults and want to be free. They are not using grace as license. They struggle, they fight and sometimes they lose. The point is that they are in the game.

There are some who shouldn’t be admitted to the church, or should be removed from the church. Those are sinners who don’t care about their sin. They are not repentant but blame-shifting, excusing and enjoying their sin(s). They are the ones who are antinomian by theory or practice.

Real Christians confess their sins as sins. Real Christians look to Christ’s blood and righteousness for their acceptance with the Father. They know we are never more or less united to Christ and therefore never more or less God’s son. But they also know that communion can increase and decrease. The Father does discipline us, as sons, when we are careless about sin. He’s concerned about our future faith & practice, not about punishing us.

Calvin is encouraging us to be kind to ourselves, and other sinners who profess faith. Repentant, they need encouragement so they stay on the path. We need to remember that while our sins may be different and less spectacular, we too fall far short of the mark ourselves. And that is normal.

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“That’s it?”

That was my general sense after finishing David Powlison’s book How Does Sanctification Work? after my study leave ended. That isn’t quite the fairest sentiment. It communicated some good things.

I found his similar book on sexual brokenness, Making All Things New, to be better. It too is short and therefore limited in scope. This one, on a much broader topic, seemed too limited in scope.

Powlison begins with an experience he and his wife had in reading Scripture. They read Deuteronomy 32:10-12. They each came in need of grace, but with different circumstances. God addressed each of them on the basis of His Word. Yet the Spirit “illuminated” (see WCF I) different aspects for them because they needed different aspects of the truth contained in that passage. There is a sense in which the means of grace as the same for us, but the way God uses them in “tailor made” to us and our circumstances. Sanctification for David and his wife looked both the same and different.

And so Powlison continues with the truth that there are many keys to sanctification. We often try to be reductionistic regarding sanctification. We pick one of many complementary truths as if it was the whole truth. As a result, we can easily go astray. What you have found beneficial in your circumstances and in light of your personality is not a magic bullet intended to sanctify everyone despite their different circumstances and personality.

In the midst of this he seems to allude to the recent controversy over sanctification in which a prominent Presbyterian pastor taught an essentially Lutheran view that sanctification is growing in our justification. Certainly, as we grow in our understanding of justification, it furthers our sanctification. But we must not conflate the two. And that certainly isn’t all that sanctification is. But it is not less than that.

For me, the third chapter was most helpful. It is called “Truth Unbalanced and Rebalanced“. I’ll let him briefly explain his point:

“Ministry “unbalances truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness.”

Timely words are selective, not comprehensive. They are not balanced in themselves and create a bit of an unbalance. He didn’t put it this way, but think of it as exerting more strength than usual to a person who is falling. We can over-correct but get them moving in the right direction where we then rebalance them. We are pulling people out of ditches or away from cliffs. There is not the time for comprehensive conversations in the moment. But we rebalance them by having subsequent conversations that are comprehensive. The “key” becomes integrated in a more holistic theology rather than a magic bullet.

“The task of ministry in any moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations.”

This is the “key” contribution of the book. Dr. Richard Pratt expressed it as taking the proper medicine from the cabinet. Not all truth is pertinent to a particular circumstance. When the crisis is over, there is time for theological reflection to establish healthy patterns of living. You offer them “the rest of the story.”

Where he goes with all this is a view similar to the book How People Change. There are a number of interactive elements (union with Christ, focus on Christ’s work for us, God’s commands, fellowship with other Christians, suffering, my choices etc.). His point is that while all these are present and used by God in our lives, at any given point one may be more powerful than the others. We do well to remember that how God works in me and through me will not be the same as how He works in you and through you, at least at any given moment. My wife is a different person than I am, and the process of sanctification will look a little different in her life though the same general elements are there.

Sanctification ends up as something we cannot control or predict. God works in us by His Word and Spirit so we apply the Scriptures, understand our identity in Christ and our will and/or desires are shaped and molded (Phil. 2:12-13). He also uses other people and our circumstances in this gumbo of sanctification. People will bring us the Word and wisdom. Circumstances provide the opportunities to obey, experience consequences, limit or expand options. God is at work in all things things to conform us to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28-9).

Powlison then gets personal. He tells his own story, first in terms of his conversion and then sanctification. He then tells the stories of Charles and Charlotte. In this we see the basic patterns at work in a personalized way. In this way the book is helpful for us. It arises from his decades of work as a counselor.

This could serve as a good counterpart or complement to Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, which is an exegetical look at sanctification. Both should help pastors, church officers and lay leaders walk people through God’s sanctifying work.

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My list differs in that I’m focused on books I actually read in 2017, not books released in 2017. I’ve got a variety of books in this list. It is not simply theology, Bible and ministry related. Perhaps there are some you will be prompted to read. I hope so, because you might benefit from them. So, here we go.

Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair Ferguson. This was probably the best book I read in 2017. Ferguson focuses on a series of texts that provide a framework for our sanctification. He does a great job of defining sanctification in terms of our devotion to God, and unpacking those texts. I highly recommend this book.

From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading and Applying the Bible by Sinclair Ferguson. Yes, another book by Sinclair Ferguson. This is an updated version of one of his earliest book. He addresses the authority of the Bible and how to benefit from reading it. Both novices and experienced readers of the Bible can benefit from it.

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom by Carl Trueman. I’ve loved this series by Crossway. This is another impressive contribution by Trueman. He is not trying to repaint Luther to look like a 21st century evangelical. Luther places great stress on the Word of God in our worship and Christian living. It is an emphasis that should mark us more than it currently does.

Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever by Michael Horton. This  is another excellent volume in the series by Crossway. It is fairly theological, but not for theology’s sake. Like the Luther volume, we see the very different context in which the Christian live is lived. The church was close to the center of life for most people with services offered daily. Horton focuses on the story of redemption and how this shapes Calvin’s views. Not just a man of his times, Calvin was also a man ahead of his time.

Faith Seeking Assurance by Anthony Burgess. This Burgess is the Puritan, not the author of A Clockwork Orange. The focus of the book is assurance of salvation. Assurance is viewed subjectively (Calvin tends to view it objectively- assurance God saves sinners), meaning that God has saved this particular sinner. He holds to the view expressed in the Westminster Standards. In my review I note that this is not a perfect book, but that it is a very good and worthwhile book.

Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Love for God by John Flavel. Another Puritan volume worth considering. It is not long but focuses on maintaining our love for God in a variety of difficult circumstances that Flavel lays out for us. He notes the particular temptation of each set of circumstances and provides means to help us maintain our love for God in them. This is a very good little book.

Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining and Bitterness by David Powlison. This book is unusual in that it doesn’t frame anger as essentially wrong. He does address our anger problems, tying them back to what we love. Often our anger problems reveal love problems. This was a very helpful book.

Making All Things New by David Powlison. This is a short book focused on God’s plan to restore our broken sexuality. He addresses both the sexual sinner and sexual victims though it is weighted toward the sinner. He is realistic as he views this within the framework of our sanctification. Though brief, it was helpful by providing an overview of God’s goals and purposes.

Dream with Me: Race, Love and the Struggle We Must Win by John Perkins. If you haven’t read any of John Perkins’ books before, this is a great place to begin. He is an activist for civil rights as viewed through the framework of the gospel. He sees Christ as the only real hope for racial reconciliation. The books is full of stories compiled according to the themes he explores.

Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. This is a very good and accessible book on the subject of union with Christ. It doesn’t address all that it could. What it does cover, it covers quite well. It is written for laypeople so you won’t get lost in abstraction or in over your head theologically.

Getting the Gospel Right: The Tie that Binds Evangelicals Together by R.C. Sproul. I read the recently updated volume which was originally published in the 1990’s. Sproul examined and critiqued the controversial Gift of Salvation document which followed after Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Generally winsome and irenic, Sproul explores the reality of the communion of saints and its connection to the doctrine of justification. In the process, R.C. sheds light on a recent theological controversy as well as the one we call the Reformation.

Rejoicing in Christ by Michael Reeves. I like Reeves’ books. He writes with a sense of humor, sense of history and wanting a doxological focus. This volume focuses on Christology and presents it in an interesting and accessible fashion.  This is a very helpful book for laypeople wanting to understand Christology.

Jonah (The Exegetical Commentary of the Old Testament) by Kevin Youngblood. This was my favorite commentary while preaching through Jonah this fall. It has a very good blend of exegesis and application. It strikes a very good balance. Knowledge of Hebrew was not essential to benefit from his discussion of the Hebrew text. He talked about how each passage fits within the canon of the Bible. I’m looking forward to other volumes in this series by Zondervan.

War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team by Michael Holley. Holley has written a number of books about the New England Patriots. So far, all the ones I’ve read have been interesting. This book focuses on the staff, though it includes some material about key players and the draft process.

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