Monday, March 12, 2018

Spurgeon on True Conversion

"Note the business on hand—it is that Jesus should be King over you. ...Jesus must be King or He cannot be your Savior. Thousands of people are quite willing to be saved by Christ, but when it comes to the first step, namely, that Jesus must be accepted as Ruler, Lawgiver, Master, King, and Lord, then they start back and reject eternal life—
“Yet know (nor of the terms complain),
Where Jesus comes, He comes to reign;
To reign, and with no partial sway;
Thoughts must be slain that disobey.”
"The whole question of your being saved or lost will turn on this—if Jesus is not your King, then the devil will remain enthroned in your heart and you will remain a lost soul. But if your heart will yield itself up to the supreme authority of King Jesus, then the work of salvation has already commenced and Jesus will take care to purge your nature of all His enemies until you shall be an empire in which He alone shall reign in holiness and peace. Jesus must be king! What do you say, sir, shall it be so? Do you hesitate about it? He must be your Lord and Master. His will must be your will. His commands must be law to you and His example must henceforth be the model of your life. Do you disagree or will you yield at once?...
"...And here is the point, if Jesus is to reign, the old king must go down. It is of no use trying to have [Sin and Christ] on the throne at the same time. It is impossible to serve sin and to serve Christ. Favorite and constitutional sins must be relinquished. I know many persons who say that they are under concern of soul whose sincerity I more than question, because they continue in known sin and yet they complain that they cannot find peace. How can they?...
"...The main point, however, is to do it—really and at once make Christ Jesus your King. And to this end we must believe in Him or trust Him. It is this trusting Jesus Christ which is the essential point, for out of it grows the repentance which renounces every false way. When a man fully and honestly trusts Christ with his soul, he is enabled from that time forward to hate the sin which he once loved and so he wins the mastery over it. He finds a joy in submitting to the holy reign of Jesus because he has already trusted Him and believes that he is saved. But alas! many of you do not believe..."
-- from his sermon entitled, "Now Then Do It"

Saturday, December 2, 2017

John Stott on True Conversion

(from "Basic Christianity", an excellent book on what it really means to become a Christian)

In reference to Luke 14:25-33, Stott writes:

...All too many people still ignore Christ’s warning and undertake to follow him without first pausing to reflect on the cost of doing so. The result is the great scandal of so-called ‘nominal Christianity’. In countries to which Christian civilization has spread, large numbers of people have covered themselves with a decent, but thin, veneer of Christianity.

 They have allowed themselves to become a little bit involved; enough to be respectable, but not enough to be uncomfortable. Their religion is a great, soft cushion. It protects them from the hard unpleasantness of life, while changing its place and shape to suit their convenience. No wonder cynics complain of hypocrites in the church and dismiss religion as escapism. The message of Jesus was very different. He never lowered his standards or changed his conditions to make his call easier to accept. He asked his first disciples, and he has asked every disciple since, to give him their thoughtful and total commitment. Nothing less than this will do.

[Stott then quotes Mark 8:34-38]
 At its simplest, Christ’s call was ‘Follow me’. He asked men and women for their personal allegiance. He invited them to learn from him, to obey his words and to identify themselves themselves with his cause. Now there can be no following without a previous forsaking. To follow Christ is to give up all lesser loyalties….

.….Let me be more explicit about what needs to be abandoned, which cannot be separated from what it means to follow Jesus Christ. First, there must be a renunciation of sin. The word for this is repentance and it is the first step in Christian conversion. There is no way round it. Repentance and faith belong together. We cannot follow Christ without forsaking sin.

Repentance is a definite turning away from every thought, word, deed and habit that we know to be wrong. It is not enough to feel pangs of remorse or to make some kind of apology to God. In essence, repentance is a matter neither of what we feel nor of what we say. It is an inward change of mind and attitude towards sin which leads to a change of behaviour. There can be no compromise here.

There may be sins in our lives which we do not think we could ever let go of; but we must be willing to let them go and ask God to deliver us from them. If you are unsure about what is right and what wrong, about what must go and what may be held on to, do not be too greatly influenced by Christians you may know and what they do. Go instead by the clear teaching of the Bible and by the prompting of your conscience, and Christ will gradually lead you further along the right path. When he puts his finger on anything, give it up. It may be someone you spend time with or something you do, or some attitude of pride, jealousy or resentment, or a refusal to forgive.

Jesus told his followers to gouge out their eye and cut off their hand or foot if these caused them to sin. We are not to obey this literally, of course, by mutilating our bodies. It is a vivid figure of speech for dealing ruthlessly with the ways through which temptation comes to us. Sometimes, true repentance has to include making amends. This means putting things right with other people whom we may have hurt.

All our sins wound God, and nothing we do can heal the injury. Only the atoning death of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, can do this. But when our sins have harmed other people, we can sometimes help to repair the damage, and where we can, we must. Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax-collector, more than repaid the money he had stolen from his clients and promised to give away half his capital to the poor to compensate for the thefts which he was unable to make good. We must follow his example.

There may be money or time for us to pay back, rumours to be contradicted, property to return, apologies to be made, or broken relationships to be restored. We must not be unduly overscrupulous in this matter, however. It would be foolish to rummage through past years and make an issue of insignificant words or deeds long ago forgotten by the person we offended. Nevertheless, we must be realistic about this duty. I have known a student own up to the university authorities that she had cheated in an exam, and another return some books which he had stolen from a shop. An army officer sent a list of items he had ‘scrounged’ to the Ministry of Defence.

If we really repent, then we shall want to do everything in our power to put things right. We cannot continue to enjoy what we have gained from the sins we want to be forgiven.

…So, in order to follow Christ we have to deny ourselves, to crucify ourselves, to lose ourselves. The full, inescapable demand of Jesus Christ is now revealed in full. He does not call us to a sloppy half-heartedness, but to a vigorous, absolute commitment. He calls us to make him our Lord.  [Mark 8:34-38; Luke 14:25-33]

Many people think that we can enjoy the benefits of Christ’s salvation without accepting the challenge of his absolute authority. There is no support for such an unbalanced idea in the New Testament. ‘Jesus is Lord’ [Rom. 10:9] is the earliest known summary of what Christians believe….

…God had placed his Son Jesus far above every other authority and given the highest possible status to him, so that ‘every knee should bow’ before him ‘and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’ [Phil. 2:9-11].  He does not call us to a sloppy half-heartedness, but to a vigorous, absolute commitment. To make Christ Lord is to bring every area of our public and private lives under his control. …. 


-- John Stott. “Basic Christianity” (pp. 133-137). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

"Once saved, you'll want to obey the Lord...."

“No matter how you put it, no matter how you argue it, no matter how you outline it, one of the evidences of having salvation in your heart is a desire to be obedient to Him. If you’re a professing Christian and your whole nature is disobedient to what God says in His Word, you better have a meeting with the Lord.

"If you don’t believe this is true, you carefully read 1 John and find out how many things John puts in that little epistle about the evidence of salvation, and almost every one of them, if not every one of them, can be tied somewhere to the idea of obedience. Once saved, you’ll want to obey the Lord. Now that is not to say that in every instance every Christian all the time will, but there will be a desire in his heart to obey the Lord….”

-- James T. Jeremiah (fomer president & chancellor of Cedarville University)

Martin Luther on the First Commandment

I recently read Martin Luther’s profound treatment of the 1st Commandment (in a new translation) and was struck by his insights:

"You are to have no other gods...."

What is the meaning of the First Commandment?  It is God saying to us:   "You are to regard me alone as your God. What does 'to have a God' mean? Or, what is 'God'? 

Answer: God is that in which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one [entity: a god, person, thing, cause] with your whole heart. It is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one.  Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God. 

The intention of this commandment therefore is to require true faith and confidence of the heart, which fly straight to the one true God and cling to him alone. What this means is: 'see to it that you let me alone be your God, and never search for another'. In other words 'whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl to me and cling to me. I, I myself, will give you what you need and help you out of every danger. Only do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else.'

-- "The Large Catechism of Martin Luther" in "Word and Faith" vol. 2, Kirsi I. Stjerna, ed. (Fortress Press) p. 300

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Calvin on Justification, Faith and Works

"When therefore, we say that the faithful are esteemed just even in their deeds this is not stated as a cause of their salvation, and we must diligently notice that the cause of salvation is excluded from this doctrine; for, when we discuss the cause, we must look nowhere else but to the mercy of God, and there we must stop. 

"But although works tend in no way to the cause of justification, yet, when the elect sons of God were justified freely by faith, at the same time their works are esteemed righteous by the same gratuitous liberality. Thus it still remains true, that faith without works justifies, although this needs prudence and a sound interpretation; for this proposition, that faith without works justifies is true and yet false, according to the different senses which it bears.

"The proposition, that faith without works justifies by itself, is false, because faith without works is void. But if the clause "without works" is joined with the word "justifies," the proposition will be true. Therefore faith cannot justify when it is without works, because it is dead, and a mere fiction. He who is born of God is just, as John says (1 John v. 18).

"Thus faith can be no more separated from works than the sun from his heat: yet faith justifies without works, because works form no reason for our justification; but faith alone reconciles us to God, and causes him to love us, not in ourselves, but in his only-begotten Son."

-- cited in an article by Richard B. Gaffin

Friday, October 13, 2017

Acedia (Spiritual Apathy) versus Friendship with God

Especially helpful insights about the essence of true Christian spirituality from an article in First Things by Reinhard Hutter:

"…To comprehend the spiritual roots of this crisis, we need to recall an all-too-forgotten vice, acedia, usually called “sloth” but better rendered as “spiritual apathy.” It is the very forgoing of friendship with God—which is the fulfillment of the transcendent dignity and calling of the human person—and the embrace of the self-indulgent deception that there never was and never will be friendship with God, that there never was and never will be a transcendent calling and dignity of the human person. Nothing matters much, because the one thing that really matters, God’s love and friendship, does not exist and therefore cannot be attained.

"Acedia creates a void that we try to fill with transient rushes of pleasure—primarily venereal pleasure—to ward off the ennui of life bereft of its very center. But the simulacra [an image or representation of someone or something]   that promise the rushes of pleasure we seek betray us. They cannot fill the void created by the loss of our transcendent calling to the love and friendship of God. Rather, they only increase the craving to fill the void we cannot fill, breeding compulsion and intensifying spiritual apathy, thereby encouraging acedia’s most dangerous shoot to spring forth: despair.

"Christian spiritual wisdom has always regarded acedia as a vice that, unchecked, will eventually prove deadly to the Christian life. For spiritual apathy first leads us to despair of God’s love and mercy and eventually issues in a sadness that will always cause problems. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas observes in On Evil, “No human being can long remain pleasureless and sad.” People engulfed by the sadness to which their indulgence in spiritual apathy led them tend to avoid such sadness first by shirking and then by resenting and scorning God’s love and mercy.

"This vice’s post-Christian secular offshoot, an unthematic despair posing as boredom, covers—like a fungus—the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional life of many, if not most, who inhabit the affluent segments of the Western secular world. The old vice of acedia, of spiritual apathy, is the root cause of the typically bourgeois ennui, boredom.

"Eventually the collective ideological, cultural, social, and political aversion to the divine good previously received and embraced will issue in a collective spiritual state of acedia, which eventually turns against any remnant of or witness to the transcendent dignity of human persons and to their calling to friendship with God. This is the very story of modern secularism. The flight from sadness that begins with avoiding and resisting spiritual goods and ends with attacking them describes with uncanny accuracy the specific ressentiment   [a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be acted upon, frequently resulting in some form of self-abasement]  and aggression typical of a secular age.

"...The single most important practice that fortifies our spiritual chastity and simultaneously protects us from acedia is an active and persistent discipline of prayer...."

"The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him,
    and he makes known to them his covenant."  Ps. 25:14

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Coming Wrath and the Message of Paul

"Most scholars believe 1 Thessalonians was the first of Paul’s extant epistles to be written. Sent shortly after Paul established a community of believers in Thessalonica, the letter reflects from beginning to end the thrust of Paul’s message when he first arrived in the city. At any moment, Paul had warned his listeners, an outpouring of divine wrath would engulf an unsuspecting humanity and bring it sudden destruction (1: 10; 5: 3; cf. 2 Thess 1: 5-10). Human sinfulness had all but reached its limit. Gentiles for their part had paid no heed to the true and living God while serving idols; their immorality was notorious and their conduct in general befitted darkness, not light (cf. 1 Thess 1: 9; 4: 4-5; 5: 6-7).

"As for Jews, estrangement from God was signaled by their no less notorious history of rejecting his messengers: the prophets of old, the Lord Jesus but recently, and now his apostolic witnesses (2: 14-16). Retribution for all would be swift and inescapable (5: 3). Many people today — for reasons we need not explore here — do not take such a message seriously. Evidently, however, Paul’s first-century readers in Thessalonica had done so; the notion that a deity might be angered by their actions was nothing new, and divine displeasure was a dangerous thing. Jews and non-Jews alike had always been concerned to keep on good terms with the supernatural powers that influenced, or even controlled, their destinies. With such concerns, Paul’s message found a natural resonance.

"We may well wonder whether Stendahl can be right in suggesting that the question 'How am I to find a gracious God?' has occupied people in the modern West, but it is inconceivable that he is right in denying such a concern to the people of antiquity — particularly if we think of those who responded to Paul’s message of pending doom. Whether or not it induced a harbinger of the introspection characteristic of later times is, in this regard, a red herring. With or without an introspective conscience, anyone who takes seriously a warning of imminent divine judgment must deem it an urgent concern to find God merciful. So much is clear.

"Conversely, nothing in the letter suggests that the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the believing community was an issue in Thessalonica. If 'the leading edge of Paul’s theological thinking was the conviction that God’s purpose embraced Gentile as well as Jew, not the question of how a guilty man might find a gracious God,'  and if the latter question marks rather the concerns of the later West, then it must be said that Paul’s message to the Thessalonians left them in the dark about the core of his thinking while pointlessly answering a question that they were born in quite the wrong time and place to even dream of raising."

"The answer Paul gave to the question he is no longer allowed to have raised was that God had provided, through his Son Jesus, deliverance from the coming wrath (1: 10; 5: 9). This message of 'salvation'  — appropriately labeled a 'gospel' (= good news) — had been entrusted to Paul (2: 4, 16). To be 'saved,' people must “receive” the gospel he proclaimed (1: 6), recognizing it to be, not the word of human beings, but that of God (2: 13). Such a response to the word of God signified a “turning to” the true and living God (1: 9) and faith in him (1: 8). Those bound for salvation were thus distinguished from those doomed to wrath by their response of faith to the gospel. The former are repeatedly identified as 'the believing ones' (1: 7; 2: 10, 13), the latter as those who do not believe (or obey) the truth of the gospel (cf. 2 Thess 1: 8; 2: 12; 3: 2)."

-- Stephen Westerholm,  "Justification Reconsidered" (p. 5). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Halting, Imperfect Faith Is Still Approved by God

"...Thus in all the saints, something reprehensible is ever to be found; yet faith, though halting and imperfect, is still approved by God.  There is, therefore, no reason why the faults we labour under should break us down, or dishearten us, provided we by faith go on in the race of our calling."

-- John Calvin, commentary on Hebrews 11:32 (regarding the faith-prompted actions of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah....)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Success in Ministry?

"The fact that contempt was Jesus the Lord's experience should teach disciples that success, as the world (and much religion) counts success, should be no criterion whatsoever for discipleship.  Success in the Christian sense is the ability to be like Jesus."

-- F.D. Bruner, commentary on Matt. 10:24-25

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Luther on 'the finest' of good works

"When people suffer bodily affliction or lose their property, reputation, friends, or anything else, do they believe they are still pleasing to God and, whether their suffering and vexation be great or small, that God is mercifully disposed toward them? In that situation, when all our senses and understanding tell us that God is angry, it is an art to trust God and to regard oneself as better cared for than it appears. . . .
"The afflictions that are endured in faith are likewise superior to any and all works done in faith, and suffering produces immeasurably greater benefits than such works can ever provide. Stronger still is the highest degree of faith, which is required when God torments the conscience not only with earthly afflictions but with death, hell, and sin while withholding divine grace and mercy, as if God would condemn and stay angry forever. Few people experience this, as David laments in the sixth Psalm . . . .
"At this point, to trust that God is gracious is the finest work of which any creature is capable."
~ Martin Luther, Treatise on Good Works

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Five Fundamentals of Genuine Faith in God

South Church -- Sunday morning sermon 7/9/17
Pastor Doug Phillips


1.  True Faith believes in the true and living God -- God as he actually is (as He has revealed Himself in His Word). – Ex. 20:1-6; Jn. 1:1-4, 14,18; 17:3; Heb. 1:3; 2:1-3; 11:6; 1 Jn. 5:21

2.  True Faith believes that God is, indeed, ‘the Supreme Being’ – and should be supremely feared, trusted, loved and obeyed.  -- Ps. 29;  95:3; Isa. 40:25ff.; Phil. 2:9-11; Heb. 12:28-29

3.  True Faith believes what the Word of God, centered in the Gospel, teaches about how we come to be right with God (in salvation).  – Heb. 2:1-3; Eph. 2:8-9; Heb. 10:19-23

4.  True Faith believes that God can only be rightly trusted, loved, obeyed and served in accordance with His infallible, inscripturated Word. – John 8:31-36; 1 Tim. 3:14-15; 2 Tim. 3:16-Acts 2:42; 17; Heb. 3:7-8; 4:11-13

5.  True Faith believes what the Word of God teaches about God’s sovereign plan and providential  purpose for the world, the Church, and the individual believer. – Eph. 1:3-10; Rom. 8:18-39; Heb. 11:10-16, 39-40; 12:25-27; Rev. 21:1-8
Recommended reading:  "Knowing God" by J.I. Packer

Friday, June 30, 2017

How Genuine Faith Works In Relation to the Things of This World

"It is in the nature of faith to mortify not only corrupt and sinful lusts, but also our natural affections, and their most vehement inclinations (though in themselves innocent) if they are in any way uncompliant with duties of obedience to the commands of God.  Yes, herein lies the principal trial/test of the sincerity and power of faith.  

"Our lives, parents, wives, children, houses, possessions, our country -- are the principal, proper, lawful objects of our natural affections; but when they together, or any of them individually, stand in the way of God's commands, or if they are hindrances to the doing or suffering anything according to his will, faith does not only mortify, weaken and cut off that love, but it even gives us a comparative hatred of them (Matt. 10:37; Luke 14:26; John 12:25)."

-- John Owen, commentary on Hebrews 11:15

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

"Don't Underestimate the Doctrine of Divine Providence"

[Originally posted at The Gospel Coalition website]

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair, conscious of the tension in the little room. I’d guessed this conversation was coming, since the people now sitting in front of me had seemed unhappy with my pastoral leadership for a good long time. I wasn’t sure what would happen now, but I was afraid it might end badly, with hurtful words spoken and their bitter departure from our church. I mention this moment not because it’s unusual in pastoral ministry—every pastor experiences such meetings sooner or later—or because it had a miraculous and uplifting outcome, but because I recall my own heart in that conversation. I claimed to be Calvinist, but I wasn’t living like one. I was thinking little of God’s role in this conversation—and much of the people sitting across from me.

A Doctrine to Cherish

In the years since, I’ve come to cherish the doctrine of God’s providence and to draw strength and encouragement from it. I’ve begun learning what a difference it makes in the Christian life. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin underscored the high stakes of believing or rejecting this doctrine: “Ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.”
I suspect relatively few of us who espouse a classical Reformed view of God’s providence, however, would say it’s borne the “best and sweetest fruit” or that for us “nothing is more profitable than the knowledge of this doctrine.” Reading Calvin on God’s providence leads me to realize we must reclaim the practical benefits of this vital teaching. 

Two Planes

The classical view of divine providence holds that every event—including human thoughts, choices, and actions—occurs according to God’s sovereign will. “All things,” the Heidelberg Catechism declares, “come not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.” This view of providence allows for genuine human causality; divine and human agency are held together.
And yet there is an ultimate causality in divine agency that sets it apart from (and over) human agency. We see this in the famous Genesis 45 passage recounting the story of Joseph and his brothers. In Genesis 45:4–8, Joseph twice says that his brothers sold him into Egypt and three times that God sent him to Egypt. Both are true. But there’s another important and initially puzzling feature here that’s crucial for grasping how to apply the doctrine of divine providence. After twice affirming his brothers’ role, Joseph seems to deny it: “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” Unless Joseph is flatly contradicting himself, he must mean his brothers were not the ones ultimately responsible. While both they and God exercise genuine agency, only God’s is ultimate. Their choice is part of God’s plan.

Providence Amnesia  

This is far from an irrelevant theological distinction in Joseph’s mind. In fact, it has immediate practical implications. “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here,” Joseph tells his brothers. Why? “For God sent me before you to preserve life.” God’s activity is the reason Joseph’s brothers need not be distressed. Yes, they really sinned, and that can’t be ignored. But God had a purpose for their actions, and that must shape their response to what they’ve done. Joseph urges them to focus more on God’s good purposes in the situation than on their own sinful purposes. They’re to report to their father Jacob that God has made Joseph lord of all Egypt (Gen. 45:9)—and the result of God’s action will be salvation for the entire family (Gen. 45:10–11). Later, we learn God’s ultimate causality led Joseph to speak kindly to his brothers rather than seek revenge (Gen. 50:19–21).
“When we are unjustly wounded by men,” Calvin wrote, “let us overlook their wickedness (which would but worsen our pain and sharpen our minds to revenge), remember to mount up to God, and learn to believe for certain that whatever our enemy has wickedly committed against us was permitted and sent by God’s just dispensation.” I think Calvin (like Joseph in Genesis 45) speaks hyperbolically to make a point. We’re not to completely ignore other people’s good or bad intentions, words, and actions. Calvin further writes, “The Christian heart, since it has been thoroughly persuaded that all things happen by God’s plan, and that nothing takes place by chance, will ever look to him as the principal cause of things, yet will give attention to the secondary causes in their proper place.” In the same evil deed, a godly man will “clearly contemplate God’s righteousness and man’s wickedness, as each clearly shows itself.” Calvin’s strongly-worded counsel to “overlook their wickedness” and “mount up to God” is his way of emphasizing that our main focus is to be on God’s purposes, not human intentions. 
This is enormously helpful and practical counsel for all Christians. We’re prone, when confronted with spiteful and malicious human enemies, to forget God is ultimately behind what’s happening to us. Perhaps we give lip service to the truth of his providence, but most of our emotions and responses are directed toward the human agents. After all, they’re more immediately present to our senses. Too often the conviction that God is sovereign, and that humans fulfill his good plans, has virtually no practical impact on the way we live. We suffer from providence amnesia.

Seeing the Invisible Hand

We should begin each day by asking God to give us faith to see his hand in every encounter. Paul Tripp prays three commendable prayers at the outset of the day: (1) “Lord, I’m a person in desperate need of help today,” (2) “Lord, won’t you, in your grace, send your helpers my way?” and (3) “Lord, please give me the humility to receive the help when it comes.” Daily preparing ourselves to receive God’s loving help in unexpected ways, through unexpected people—perhaps through unexpected suffering and hardship—opens our eyes to see the loving activity of his hand in every circumstance. We’re watching for that fatherly hand.
Moreover, when someone hurts us, we should spend more time reflecting on God’s good purposes than on their evil intentions. Or, adapting Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s famous advice, for every look at someone else’s evil intentions, take ten looks at God’s providential purposes. This is what Joseph instructed his brothers to do. It’s what Job did (Job 1:21). Of course we can never fully know God’s purposes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ponder them. After all, our ignorance of the bad intentions of those who hurt us doesn’t stop us from endlessly speculating on their intentions. If we’re going to speculate, why not speculate on God’s good purposes instead?

A Doctrine for Life

If I were having that same painful conversation in the little room tomorrow, I’m sure I wouldn’t be looking forward to it. My palms might still be sweaty. But I hope I’d have a confidence this time I didn’t have before. I hope I’d be expecting God to work for me, even through the cutting words of angry people. God’s providence doesn’t make our troubles go away, but it does frame them within his majestic and loving purposes for us. This doctrine matters for life.

Stephen Witmer (PhD, University of Cambridge) is pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship in Pepperell, Massachusetts, and teaches New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is author of Eternity Changes Everything: How to Live Now in the Light of Your Future (Good Book Company, 2014) and the volume on Revelation in Crossway's Knowing the Bible series. Follow him on Twitter: @stephenwitmer1. This article was written with the support of the Center for Pastor Theologians ( and the John Templeton Foundation. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"The Recipe for a Successful Pastor"

Excellent article from Paul Tripp on the Gospel Coalition website:

I am convinced that many of the problems in pastoral culture result from an unbiblical definition of the essential ingredients of ministry success. Sure, most candidate profiles expect a “vibrant walk with the Lord,” but these words are often weakened by a process that asks few questions in this area and makes grand assumptions. We’re really interested in knowledge (right theology), skill (good preacher), ministry philosophy (will build the church), and experience (isn’t cutting his pastoral teeth in this new place of ministry). I have heard church leaders, in moments of pastoral crisis, say many times, “We didn’t know the man we hired.”

What does knowing the man entail? It means knowing the true condition of his heart—as far as such is possible. What does he really love, and what does he despise? What are his hopes, dreams, and fears? What are the deep desires that fuel and shape the way he does ministry? What anxieties have the potential to derail or paralyze him? How accurate is his view of himself? How open is he to confrontation, critique, and encouragement? How committed is he to his own sanctification?

How open is he about his own temptations, weaknesses, and failures? How ready is he to listen to and defer to the wisdom of others? Is pastoral ministry a community project to him? Does he have a tender, nurturing heart? Is he warm and hospitable, a shepherd and champion to those who are suffering? What character qualities would his wife and children use to describe him? Does he sit under his own preaching? Is his heart broken and his conscience regularly grieved as he looks at himself in the mirror of the Word? How robust, consistent, joyful, and vibrant is his devotional life?

Does his ministry to others flow out of the vibrancy of his devotional communion with the Lord? Does he hold himself to high standards, or does he settle for mediocrity? Is he sensitive to the experience and needs of those who minister alongside him? Does he embody the love and grace of the Redeemer? Does he overlook minor offenses? Is he ready and willing to forgive? Is he critical and judgmental? How does the public pastor differ from the private husband and dad? Does he take care of his physical self? Does he numb himself with too much social media or television? How would he fill in this blank: “If only I had ________”? How successful has he been in pastoring the congregation that is his family?

True Condition of the Pastor’s Heart

A pastor’s ministry is never just shaped by his experience, knowledge, and skill. It is also always shaped by the true condition of his heart. In fact, if his heart is not in the right place, knowledge and skill can make him dangerous.

Pastors often struggle to find living, humble, needy, celebratory, worshipful, meditative communion with Christ. It is as if Jesus has left the building. There is all kinds of ministry knowledge and skill, but it seems divorced from a living communion with a living and ever-present Christ. All this activity, knowledge, and skill seems to be fueled by something else. Ministry becomes shockingly impersonal. Then it’s about theological content, exegetical rightness, ecclesiastical commitments, and institutional advancement. It’s about preparing for the next sermon, getting the next meeting agenda straight, and filling the requisite leadership openings. It’s about budgets, strategic plans, and ministry partnerships.

None of these things is wrong in itself. Many of them are essential. But they must never be ends in themselves. They must never be the engine that propels the vehicle. They must all express something deeper in the pastor’s heart.

The pastor must be enthralled by, in awe of, and in love with his Redeemer so that everything he thinks, desires, chooses, decides, says, and does is propelled by love for Christ and the security of rest in the love of Christ. He must be regularly exposed by, humbled by, assured by, and given rest by the grace of his Redeemer. His heart needs to be tenderized day after day by his communion with Christ so that he becomes a loving, patient, forgiving, encouraging, and giving servant-leader. His meditation on Christ, his presence, his promises, and his provisions must not be overwhelmed by his meditation on how to make his ministry work.

Protection Against All Other Loves

Only love for Christ can defend the heart of the pastor against all other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry. Only worship of Christ has the power to protect him from all the seductive idols of ministry that will whisper in his ear. Only the glory of the risen Christ will guard him against the self-glory that tempts all and destroys the ministry of so many.

Only Christ can turn an arrogant, “bring on the world” seminary graduate into a patient, humble giver of grace. Only deep gratitude for a suffering Savior can make a man willing to suffer in ministry. Only in brokenness before your own sin can you give grace to fellow rebels among whom God has called you to minister. Only when your identity is firmly rooted in Christ will you find freedom from seeking to get your identity out of your ministry.

We must be careful how we define ministry readiness and spiritual maturity. There is a danger in thinking that the well-educated and well-trained seminary graduate is ministry ready or to mistake ministry knowledge, busyness, and skill with personal spiritual maturity. Maturity is a vertical thing that will have a wide variety of horizontal expressions. Maturity is about relationship to God that results in wise and humble living. Maturity of love for Christ expresses itself in love for others.

Thankfulness for the grace of Christ expresses itself in grace to others. Gratitude for the patience and forgiveness of Christ enables you to be patient and forgiving of others. Your daily experience of the rescue of the gospel gives you a passion for people experiencing the same rescue. This is the soil in which true ministry success grows.

-- Paul Tripp

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"The Case for Idolatry: Why Christians Can Worship Idols"

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to worship idols. It’s not that my parents raised me that way, because they didn’t; I was brought up in a loving, secure, Christian home. But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else—popularity, money, influence, sex, success—in place of God.
That’s just who I am. 
For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away.
I wanted it to, but it didn’t.
So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshiping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture. In recent years, I’ve finally summoned the courage to admit I am one of them. Let me give you a few reasons why I believe idolatry and Christianity are compatible.

Evangelical, Biblical, Jesus-Loving Idolater 

I start with my own story, and the stories of many others like me. I’m an evangelical, and have a high view of the Bible—I have a PhD in biblical studies at King’s College London, which will be my third theology degree—and I know both the ancient languages and also the state of scholarly research. Yet, after much prayerful study, I’ve discovered the liberating truth that it’s possible to be an idolatrous Christian. That, at least, is evidence that you can be an evangelical and an idolater.
Not only that, but a number of evangelical writers have been challenging the monolatrous narrative in a series of scholarly books. A number of these provide a powerful case for listening to the diversity of the ancient witnesses in their original contexts, and call for a Christlike approach of humility, openness, and inclusion toward our idolatrous brothers and sisters.
Some, on hearing this, will of course want to rush straight to the “clobber passages” in Paul’s letters (which we will consider in a moment), in a bid to secure the fundamentalist ramparts and shut down future dialogue. But as we consider the scriptural material, two things stand out.
First, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament—the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars on the weekend, they indicate we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.
Second, and even more significantly, we need to read the whole Bible with reference to the approach of Jesus. To be a Christian is to be a Jesus person—one whose life is based on his priorities, not on the priorities of subsequent theologians. And when we look at Jesus, we notice that he welcomed everyone who came to him, including those whom the (one-God worshiping) religious leaders rejected—and that Jesus said absolutely nothing about idols in any of the four Gospels. Conservative theologians, many of whom are friends of mine, often miss this point in the cut-and-thrust of debate. But for those who love Jesus, it should be at the heart of the discussion.
Jesus had no problem with idolatry.
He included everyone, however many gods they worshiped.
If we want to be like him, then we should adopt the same inclusive approach.
We should also remember that, as we’ve discovered more about the human brain, we’ve found out all sorts of things about idolatry that the biblical writers simply didn’t know. The prophets and apostles knew nothing of cortexes and neurons, and had no idea some people are pre-wired to commit idolatry, so they never talked about it. But as we’ve learned more about genetics, neural pathways, hormones, and so on, we’ve come to realize some tendencies—alcoholism, for example—scientifically result from the way we are made, and therefore cannot be the basis for moral disapproval or condemnation. To disregard the findings of science on this point is like continuing to insist the world is flat.

Putting Paul in His Place

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who’s sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage” (Romans 1), the problem isn’t really idol worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, isn’t that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He’s talking about people who were naturally worshipers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?
Not only that, but none of his references applies to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities—statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone—and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions. (Some see an exception in the way he talks about coveting as idolatry in Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, but these obviously reflect his desire, as a first-century Jew, to honor the Ten Commandments.)
In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he’s not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves and women), and it’s about time we recognized that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.
Obviously this is a contribution to an ongoing conversation, rather than the last word on the subject. But I hope you will all search the Scriptures, search your hearts, and consider the evidence afresh—and avoid judging those who disagree in the meantime! Maybe, just maybe, we can make space in the church for those who, like me, have spent a lifetime wrestling with the challenge of idolatry.

Editors’ note: While this article is satire, it’s not lost on us at TGC that idolatry is a serious issue. We hope that this parody will challenge, encourage, and better equip you to root out your own “factory of idols.”