What to Watch for in Ministry

As I took off my headphones, I told my wife, “I think I just heard the best sermon I’ve ever heard. I need to listen to more from this guy!” I told this to my wife about a famous preacher last year and was surprised to discover recently that he had fallen to sexual immorality and left the ministry. In recent years, others have fallen also, some of which were once stellar preachers and theologians. Names like Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson remind us that apostasy is not some ancient phenomenon to the church. 1 John 2:19 reminds us that news like this will be the case until Jesus comes back and for that reason, we need not be surprised. But when news like this comes to our attention as believers, it should sober us. We need to be reminded from time to time that no amount of homiletical skill, theological astuteness, or ministry fruitfulness protects us from making shipwreck of our faith and leading others astray. But in light of this, what can pastors and elders do to stay the course? Paul charges the church leaders to keep watch. First on ourselves, then on our teaching, and finally on the flock entrusted to our care.

1. Keep a close watch on yourself 

Keep a close watch on yourself...”-1 Tim. 4:16a

Pay careful attention to yourselves…”- Acts 20:28a

Just after announcing in verse 1, “in later times some will depart from the faith,” Paul urges Timothy: “Train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:1, 7b-8). Godliness is not a helpful add-on to ministry effectiveness. It is not the sprinkles on the cake; it is the eggs and flour that make up the cake. It is a vital ingredient we cannot afford to do without. Let us remember that God will hold us accountable just as He will the rest of His people.

In the Acts passage, Paul had gathered the Ephesian elders together and shared that from among their own selves would arise false teachers. He charged them to “stay alert.” This charge to, “keep watch” and “stay alert” is found throughout Scripture, but Paul takes it a step further. He calls the church leaders among us to an even more careful scrutiny of our lives: “Keep a close watch on yourself…pay careful attention to yourselves.” This is cautious and careful watchfulness that refuses to rest the eyes of the soul. This is the kind of watchfulness a man has when looking for his lost wedding band in the parking lot or the kind of watchfulness a soldier exhibits when walking into a field full of mines. It is the kind of watchfulness the Wallenda family exercised recently while walking a tightrope over Times Square amid the chaos of flashing lights, city sounds, and strong wind gusts. If even First Century pastors who knew Paul could become false teachers and apostates, we must beware in our Twenty-First Century age.

But how? Puritan Thomas Brooks was right when he closed his book on Satan’s temptations stating that this world is full of snares. How does one maintain such careful and cautious watchfulness while living in such a self-centered culture?

This is only possible by the Spirit’s enabling. Therefore, we must strive to maintain a position of weakness and dependency upon God. One of the sins in ministry that lead to other sins is pride or spiritual independence. As pastors, we are prone to being people-pleasers and know-it-alls. People look to us for spiritual guidance and biblical wisdom, and it can be easy to forget Paul’s warning: “What do you have that you did not receive?” We must stay humble. None of us are indispensable. God doesn’t need a hero. He is it. When the most meek man, Moses failed to uphold God as holy before the people, God put him on the shelf. Let’s stay humble.

I feel it important to point out also that we and our spouses know us best, so we know what else we must keep watch on. Perhaps you are prone to make ministry a mistress in your life and need to show more affection to your family and prioritize your schedule to aide this. Perhaps you often give into envy of other “successful” pastors or churches and slip into unhealthy discouragement or competitive relationships with other church staff. We must know ourselves and then keep watch on the sins to which we are prone. One helpful thing to do is to take your wife or a close friend out for coffee and ask them to share some helpful feedback on your life and specific areas in which you could improve. This is humbling, but it can be part of careful watchfulness. We must keep a close watch on our devotional lives, our marriages, our family. We must know what causes us to stumble and actively resist these and rest in Christ.

2. Keep a close watch on the teaching 

Keep a close watch…on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”-1 Tim. 4:16b

In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul often emphasizes the importance of sound teaching or doctrine. James warned that teachers will be judged with greater strictness (3:1). Jesus said we will give account for every careless word we speak. This should cause us to think more carefully over the words we let roll out of our mouths and strive to teach  in a way that aligns with God’s infallible, inerrant, and inspired Word. Indeed, since God’s Word alone has the power to save and stands alone in its authority, our preaching/teaching/writing must never stand apart from it. We are even promised that if we are careful to watch our lives and teaching, God will save us and our hearers. What use is preaching if it fails to save? Therefore, let us live and preach in a way that will help the grace of salvation be displayed and not hinder it. I believe the best way to preach and teach in a way that keeps such a close watch is to preach expository messages where the preaching is merely exposing what God has said clearly in His Word. This way the preacher doesn’t have to constantly wonder if his words are valid, for they will merely be the unfolding of God’s Word.

The last thing we must keep watch on is the sheep under our charge…

3. Pay careful attention to all the flock 

Pay careful attention…to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood.”-Acts 20:28b

It is entirely possible to watch our own souls and our teaching, while neglecting the souls of those to whom we preach. But we certainly don’t want to be the kind of shepherd described in Ezekiel 34 who fails to feed the flock. We want to take Jesus’ charge to Peter seriously and to, “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). Or as Peter put it, “Shepherd the flock of God among you” (1 Pet. 5:2). We must strive to know our people and be involved in their lives to the point that they feel comfortable opening up to us. As one pastor told me recently, we must smell like the sheep. Paul had just previously told the Ephesian elders that he went “from house to house”, and we would do well to follow his example. Pastors who know their people discover that living rooms, hospital rooms, job sites, and ball games are often great places to speak the truth of the gospel into the lives of their members. We must also invest in discipling other men, not content to let the pulpit be the only preaching they hear from us. Paul charged Timothy to entrust the gospel to faithful men who will then teach it to others (2 Tim. 2:2). All these things require time outside of the office and pulpit. Whenever we feel ourselves isolating ourselves from our people, we are forgetting they are the entire point of our ministry. In his book, Praying with Paul, Don Carson writes, “There are preachers who so loudly declare their love of preaching that it is unclear whether it is their own performance and their love of power that has captured them or their desire to minister to the men and women who listen to them.” Let’s not be preachers who are seldom seen but in the pulpit. Let’s pay careful attention to God’s flock entrusted to us.

So if we wish to experience God’s blessing on our ministry, we must not neglect any of these three important areas of which to keep watch.

The Absurdity of God Loving Some People and Not Others

Frequently I receive questions from those seeking out truth. A while ago, I received the following query from a young pastor…

“The one thing I cannot wrap my head around is the idea that God only loves some. I feel like I love people more than that and that confuses me. How would you explain this declared reality?”

So I believe it is extremely clear according to Scripture that God loves all people. Of course websites online that want to bash Grace Theology or Calvinistic belief would like to claim otherwise but Reformed folks certainly believe that God loves all people. John 3:16 speaks clearly to this matter as you have pointed out. There are two issues that all Christians must face though.

(1) The first issue to face is the reality that God loves different people in differing ways. No doubt you and your wife love all children in the world generally; but you love your own kidos far more than you love other children and out of the depth of that love you sacrifice, serve, and live in relationship with your kids in ways you would not do for other children. That normal human behavior is an echo of the love of the Divine for us. God loves all people in a benevolent or general sense, showing common kindness to all by gifting them life, breath, and a legitimate opportunity to trust in Jesus. However, he has a far deeper love for his children, whom he lives in relationship with, sacrifices for, and serves in ways that he does not do for those who are not His children. This would be called his special or familial love. 1 John 3:1, Zephaniah 3:17, Romans 8:37-39, Ephesians 2:4-5, and 1 John 4:19 all testify to this reality.

(2) Second, God loves differently than we love, both in a benevolent and in a familial sense. God loves in a benevolent sense but he permits horrible things to occur that He has the sovereign power over and knowledge to stop. With a word of His mouth He could put to flight all infanticide, famine, sexual assault, and on the despicable list rolls. Yet all of these things continue to exist. Biblically we understand that God has a purpose for all suffering and all wickedness but that does not alter the reality that if we could be God for a day then we would vanquish all blatant transgression off the face of the earth forever. He doesn’t do that which simply means that He loves differently and from a different vantage point and position of power and plan than we do.

My little girl had open heart surgery when she was six months old. Her heart would not recover so they had to perform a second surgery on her and insert a life-preserving device. It was a miserable and draining 15 days in the hospital. I met several families in the CVICU whose children were dying. I can unashamedly declare that if I were God, loving as I do, I would heal every single one of those little ones. Yet He doesn’t. Now that reality can and will produce one of two responses in people. First, people will cry foul at God’s allowing suffering or even wickedness to continue, become angry with Him, and ultimately turn away from Him. Or alternatively, they can understand rationally and Biblically that God loves differently than we do and allows suffering and wickedness as a part of human will and ultimately His eternal plan of redemption.

These realities are stated in Scripture, supported throughout church history, and affirmed in various confessions of faith. I hope this helps.

Semper Reformanda

Prone to Wander

Even though I have been in church my entire life, there still is no sweeter sound to me than hearing the voices of many blend into unison as a biblical hymn is sung on the Lord’s Day. Individually, many might not possess musical talent or a grand singing voice. Yet, collectively together, the voices become one in praising the Triune God. One hymn that is special to me is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” In this hymn, the writer makes this observation about the tendency of believers, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” In those few words, every Christian acknowledges what we wrestle with. We are prone to wander, forget, and turn away from the riches of God given to us in Christ.

With our tendency to wander and forget, it is no mystery to why the Bible emphasizes the importance of remembering. The twelve stone memorial erected by Israel after crossing the Jordan River in Joshua 4, the commemorating of Israel’s history in Psalm 78, and Peter’s statement that his two letters were written to stir up the minds of his audience by way of remembrance; the Bible declares that we need to go back and remember truths. In coming to the Lord’s Table to partake of communion, our Lord’s words are repeated during the service: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

In the Lord’s kindness, He provides us with a meal in which our celebration centers upon remembrance. Each time a church celebrates communion, Paul states that we are proclaiming the gospel. Can we ever hear the gospel too many times? Is it possible for us to preach the gospel too many times? So, it is not a bad thing for us to repeat ourselves in preaching and teaching the Bible. True, we do not need to say the same thing the same way over and over! However, the truths of the gospel are to be repeated because we are prone to wander and forget. How often do we practically live and view justification as dependent upon what I do for the Lord today?

Whether Christians are living in the first century or the twenty-first century, we have a propensity to still function as if we are under a covenant of works when it comes to sanctification rather than see that we are justified and sanctified by the covenant of grace. The centrality of Christ must never be seen as too simple by us. The 2LBCF beautifully expresses our utter dependence upon Christ for every part of salvation this way: “The principle acts of saving faith have immediate relation to Christ, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Him alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.”[1] There is no part of our lives as believers that is to be seen detached from the person and work of Christ. Both justification and sanctification flow from union with Christ.

As we make our way through this pilgrimage, we are reminded of our sin and our susceptibility to the snares of the devil. We continue fighting and resisting the overtures of Satan, the world, and carnal impulses from within. When the battle gets hard, those are the moment that we are most vulnerable to wander and forget. Remember that supremacy of Christ and all that He has done! In Christ, you have been made perfect in Him forever. Nothing can undo the divine declaration that you are righteous in the sight of God due to being in Christ! Go back to Calvary and the covenant: the believer’s posture is one of resting in Christ! When the battle against sin seems to overwhelm us, remember this stanza from “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and rest in the hope of Christ!

 

O that day when freed from sinning, I shall see Thy lovely face;

Clothed then in the blood-washed linen How I’ll sing Thy sov’reign grace.

Come, my Lord, no longer tarry, Take my ransomed soul away;

Send thine angels now to carry Me to realms of endless day.

 

[1] 2LBCF 14.2

Clean

On August 1, 2003 I used cocaine and abused drugs for the last time. The Lord rescued me from a miserable life substance abuse, despair, confusion, and an unstable state of uncertainty.

This is probably the most personal blog post I’ve written to date. I’ve spoken extensively on God rescuing me from despair, counseled many people still lost in addiction and substance abuse, and by God’s grace discipled some out of that destruction and into new life in Jesus Christ. But I’ve never written on the subject. It’s not because of shame, although I lived in shame for a long time, nor is it out of fear, although some use my past as ammo for their own agenda. I pray that God uses His story of redemption to point you to Christ and so that you can rejoice in His goodness with me.

The Way it Used to Be

Having been raised in a God-fearing home, I knew better. Really, I did. And for years I wrestled with “Could I have been saved when I was a little boy if I struggled in this sin for years?”

As a little boy, I heard the Gospel, believed the Gospel, and today I can say that I believe God saved me. That may sound strange to some evangelical ears but I lived in regular state of conviction and shame over my sin and had periods of repentance and commitment to Christ where I genuinely sought to honor Him (1 John 3:6-10). Today, I praise God that He is The Faithful Shepherd who always pursues His own, even when they wander on their own!

So how did this happen? There are many details that I can point outside of myself that contributed to my decision making but those details are irrelevant. To sin is always a decision for the one who is in Christ (Galatians 5:16-17). Simply, I neglected the ordinary means of grace and Christian disciplines (the Word, prayer, fellowship, discipleship, worship, & Communion) and when I did I isolated, starved spiritually, became weak and fell to my own evil desires rising up within in me (James 1:14).

What did that look like? Well, at first it started small. I began pretending to drink to impress my friends in 8th grade (I’m sure they were impressed). I started looking at porn regularly. I smoked weed for the first time at 15. Drinking to oblivion immediately followed. Shrooms and LSD were right behind that with prescription pain killers, anxiety meds, muscle relaxers, and ecstasy to follow. By the time I graduated from high school (barely with a 1.79 GPA), substance abuse was an everyday part of my life. I was either using, recovering from the previous destructive oblivion I lived in, or plotting my next one.

The Way God Awakened Me

Outside of some pockets of sobriety and rejoicing in God’s mercy and grace (some short, some lengthy), I wouldn’t find the end of this miserable duplicity until I was 24 years old.

Married to a wonderful wife, with a beautiful daughter, and a little boy about to be born I tried cocaine for the first time in March of 2003. Only six short months later, by August of 2003 I was thousands and thousands of dollars in debt to family and drug dealers, losing a home to foreclosure, on the cusp of being fired from my job, hiding my family, and running for my life (or so I thought), a disgrace to my family, and on the verge of divorce.

By August of 2003, I was the guy on my hands and knees pulling rocks, drywall, and dirt out of carpet with the hopes that it was just a little cocaine that I had previously dropped. I was broken, desperate, and couldn’t imagine living this way for the rest of my life but couldn’t imagine not having enough money to use tomorrow either. Shame, fear, remorse, and despair were my constant companions. Sadly, it was tragedy that God used to open my eyes and call me out of this destruction.

I came into work one morning to the news that a lady I worked with had been murdered the day before; the same day in which she called me looking for more dope. In my selfish destruction, it was my own welfare that was the first thought to run through my mind as I knew I would soon be face to face with law-enforcement. My heart still breaks over my sin and selfishness and grieves for that young lady’s family.

Things went downhill quickly. My family, knowing that something was terribly wrong with me but unsure of what it was, had been dragged into a murder investigation, the paranoia of multiple drug users and dealers, and a broken husband, daddy, son, and son-in-law that didn’t know how to stop. Needless to say, God’s grace and strength was sufficient for me and He delivered me to the praise of His glorious grace (Eph. 1).

It was a long and difficult road of learning how to live clean & sober but looking back I can see the overwhelming mercy, patience, and grace of God. Having come clean with my family, God sent men into my life who would take me under their wing, point me to Christ, and teach me how to live without a substance to alter my reality, even if only for today. In His strength, those “todays” have accumulated.

As of August 2nd, by God’s grace, He has given me 5,843 days of freedom in Christ. Glory to God in highest!

The Way He Pruning Me Today

There are so many details I have to leave out and the road has not always been smooth, but the purpose of this post is to point to the reality God is faithful and He delivered me and set my feet on the Rock!

Today, it’s the ordinary means of grace by which the Lord sustains me, feeds me, convicts me, encourages me, strengthens me, and sanctifies me. This has always been His way of growing His children into the image of Christ and it will always be this way until He completes the good work He began in all those He has saved. I praise God for the ordinary means of grace! I didn’t know what that meant then but today the funnel by which God lavishes His grace on me is an indispensable part of my mornings, afternoons, and evenings.

By His grace, my desire to live in an altered state of mind has been relieved; completely taken from me. By His grace, my life, marriage, and family have been saved. By His grace, He has partnered me with an extraordinary group of men to under-shepherd Christ’s Church in Eldred. By His grace, it is intimacy with my Creator, Savior, and Sustainer that my heart longs for. By His grace, I desire Christ more than anything.

Strangely enough, some years August 2nd rolls around and I don’t think anything of it and some years, like this one, I’m overwhelmed with God’s goodness toward me; His unearned, unmerited kindness demonstrated toward a wretch like me; while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me.

In the words of Edward Mote, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus name. On Chris,t the Solid Rock, I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Clean; from my sin and substance abuse, for my Savior and His glory!

If you or someone you know wants help, find me on Facebook or email me at doncarp@hotmail.com and I’d be thrilled to point you to the One for whom, through whom and to whom are all things (Romans 11:36). Jesus is enough!

A Conviction from Fiction

Fantine, Cosette, Javert, Val Jean, Marius, Eponine, are a few of the most famous characters from Victor Hugos’ classic: Les Miserables. Last week I picked up this old classic, that I haven’t read since early in college, and was struck once more by how much it impacted me back then and how it shaped my views on what ministry and the faith should look like when lived out. The main influential force of the book comes from one of my favorite literary characters, who takes up less than 100 pages of this 1200-page tome: The Bishop Myriel or as he was called by the villagers under his care: Monseigneur Bienvenu or M. Welcome. As a minister there is something to be said by such a name attached to so lofty a title, In the text he points out it is the because of the second that he would accept the first. In an era where the church was known for its lavishness and pride, Hugo painted a picture of a man who believed the things he read in Scripture. A priest who didn’t wear the cloth out of a desire to become someone, but rather as a means to serve and be the light of Christ to the worst and the greatest in the villages under his care.

In a day and age where more people are concerned with being right about their doctrine there has seemed to grow all the more potent a lack of care about one’s practice. In these short pages came the conviction that we must hold both and in doing so fear God not man. The radical hospitality of M. Bienvenu is revolutionary not just in his day but in our own. Recently, our elders have begun The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosario Butterfield. The timing of which is perfect as she describes in a modern context the reality of what is exhibited in this work of fiction. We as Christian tend to be more fearful of what the world may think of us or of how it may attack us that we build walls around ourselves, judge people accordingly, and cease to offer the loving table of Christ and the message of repentance and faith. We have become afraid to be real with a people who are lost and dying.

I think deep down it is the power that fiction has on us to paint with beauty and depth, a portrait of what could be, and in doing so strike at the heart of what has become reality. Hugo painted the picture of a shepherd who loves the flock of God (in a day and age where everyone was considered such) regardless of where they came from or who they were. This again lived in a stark contrast to a world were Bishops were about prestige, luxurious homes, and the finest of foods. When robbed he claimed those things stolen as gifts, when offered financial gifts he gave them freely to the poor, when offered a great home he gifted it to a hospital and took their small lodgings for his own. He was described as a man who loved God and loved His creation. Hugo painted a picture of what could be, and in painting this picture he seemed to ask us to become it, to be people who take our faith seriously. Who take what we believe and put it into action? Now I am no literary critic and while this is one of my favorite books, I am not an expert, but the impact that this one man of God has on a story where he is barely featured is immense. Everything that happens in the life of the protagonist Val Jean flows from the Christ like love of this one man, a man he knew for all of 12 hours and in that time experienced grace, forgiveness, hospitality, patience, and mercy. How many of us leave such legacies.

The picture of this man should encourage us all the more in looking at the marks of an Elder and overseer of the church.

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

-1 Tim. 3:1-7

The qualification laid down through the inspiration of the Spirit are easy to read and to a degree we may even check off the boxes pretty quickly, but when they are seen in the lives of others we are challenged all the more to pursue God and apply His words, picked in our hearts to become Christ to the world, and moved to love Him more and as such love our neighbors.

Now of course a fictional character is not a real person, but that doesn’t mean this reality doesn’t exist, again a lot of the characteristics of this Bishop are seen in Rosario and her Husband Kent’s Life. They do ministry life the way M. Bienvenu did his, a reflection on the ministry of Christ in the Gospels. It is in hospitality, a qualification we often pass by, that we see people who are cast off by society brought into experience the kingdom of God. In this characteristic of a bishop we see the personal and familial side of Christ, who preached the truth without fear and broke bread with all sorts of people.

May we learn what it means to be hospitable people, May I learn what this means…….

3 Ways to Pray For Your Student This School Year

Can you believe it, in just a few weeks school starts again. Vacations, beach trips, and sleepy summer days are coming to an end and will soon be replaced by hectic schedules, extracurricular activities, and early mornings. As the business of life returns here are three ways you can pray for the students in your life:

1.They Grow in their Knowledge of Christ

The school year brings new classes, new teachers, new material, homework, papers, exams and lots of opportunity for learning. An increase in knowledge is a certainty for each student this semester. And for many parents and students a like an emphasis will be placed on good grades, and rightfully so, but of all the knowledge to be gained this school year, let it be your prayer that the students in your life would gain knowledge in Christ above all else. In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul prays that the church of Colossae would increase in their knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10). Our prayer for our students should be no different.

We ought to pray that our students would have a love for God’s Word and a discipline to study it well. We should pray that they would have a desire and commitment to regular church and youth group attendance where they will be taught the Word of God faithfully week in and week out.

We all want our children to do well in the classroom and to increase in their academic knowledge, but let it be our prayer that they would increase in their knowledge of Christ first and foremost.

2. Grow in Sharing Christ

In elementary school many students are required to share something from home with their class for show and tell. Middle and high school students are often required to share a class project or book report with their peers. Many students share germs, lunches, and telephone numbers. Lots of sharing takes place at school, but let it be your prayer that of all the things your students are sharing that they would be faithful to share Christ with those around them.

One of Paul’s requests to the Colossian church is that they would pray for God to open doors for him to share the gospel (Colossians 4:3). This is a great way for us to pray for our students.

3. Be a Light in the Dark

We live in a dark world filled with evil and our classrooms are no different. Our students have a great opportunity to share the light of Christ with those around them (Matthew 5:16), but it is no easy task. There is opposition and there is temptation at every corner. We need to pray, as Paul does in Colossians 1:10, that our children would “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work.”

There are many things to pray for this school year but be sure to pray these three prayers for your students regularly.

God & The Problem of Evil

“God, what are you doing?” is a question many of us are dying to have answered from time to time. We see the evil on our news feeds and in our neighborhoods and wonder how bad things will have to get before God intervenes. Thankfully we have an entire book of the Bible devoted to this issue. Habakkuk saw the problem of evil around him and could not understand how it could coexist with a good and sovereign God. Yet we discover in the book that evil does not present a problem to God at all.

Habakkuk is one of the twelve minor prophets (minor referring to their size, not their substance). The minor prophets contain colorful and majestic statements about God’s character and ways. They are a kaleidoscope of God’s glory for God’s people. Each minor prophet presents the same faithful God in very unique ways. In Hosea, God is the faithful Husband to harlot Israel. In Joel, God wields an army of locusts. In Amos, God roars like a lion. In Obadiah, God brings down eagle-like Edom from his nest. In Jonah, God runs down the runaways. In Micah, God is a witness in court against His people. In Nahum, God comes like a storm, earthquake, fire, and flood. In Habakkuk, God enters into a dialogue with man. In Zephaniah, God sings. In Haggai, God shakes the nations. In Zechariah, God sends a fountain to cleanse the filthy. In Malachi, God rises like a sun and has wings like a bird. It is a shame if this part of our Bibles still have the shiny gilded-edge pages. The minor prophets contain a rich supply of promises as well; many are fulfilled, reminding us of God’s faithfulness, while others remain unfulfilled and call us to expectant faith in the future reign of Christ over the nations. So if you are pastor reading this, I encourage you to consider preaching through the minor prophets. I’m currently in the middle of a series which gives an overview sermon for each book and have found it thoroughly enriching to my devotional life and very practical for leading Christ’s sheep to live by faith.  

We must engage with God over the concerns on our hearts

What sets Habakkuk apart among the twelve is how it presents us with a conversation in prayer between the prophet and God over the problem of evil. Critics of Christianity often cite the problem of evil as the reason God cannot exist. Greek philosopher Epicurus developed what he considered an air-tight argument proving God’s non-existence. David Hume summarized it this way: “Epicurus’s old questions are still unanswered: Is he (God) willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? then whence evil?” (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion by David Hume). At first glance, this seems reasonable. After all, you don’t have to look far to see evil abounding. But this logic is faulty because it is founded upon a false assumption: that a good God cannot possibly use evil without being evil. Yet this is the very truth we are given in the book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk discovers that God uses evil and yet promises to judge evil. 

Habakkuk was written a few decades before Judah fell to Babylon. It had been about a hundred years since God sent Assyria to conquer the northern kingdom, yet Judah in the south was still comfortable. Habakkuk complains to God about the evil and injustice of the southern kingdom and questions when God is going to act. He doesn’t bottle up his concerns, but pours them out like water before the Lord. He casts his cares on God because he knows God cares for him. He casts his burden on the Lord. He worries about nothing, but prays about everything. As one commentator put it: “It is a wise man who takes his questions about God to God for answers” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel-Malachi, section on Habakkuk by Armerding). Waylon Bailey points out, “One of the wonders of Habakkuk’s message is the engagement of God with His people. He answered Habakkuk” (The New American Commentary: Micah-Zephaniah, section on Habakkuk by Waylon Bailey). How many concerns do we have that we never express in prayer? May we learn to engage with God over every concern that strikes us in the day.

God’s response to Habakkuk reveals the depth of His wisdom: “Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation…” (Hab. 1:5b-6a). This verse is not meant to be used for vision-casting Sunday, but is intended to communicate the depth of God’s wisdom. When we have unbelievable news to announce, we say: “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” God is here preparing Habakkuk for news that his finite mind won’t comprehend. Judah will fall to the Chaldeans (Babylon) and it is God who will send them. This of course demands another question from Habakkuk: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?…Is he then to keep on…mercilessly killing nations forever?” (Hab. 1:13, 17a). He wonders why God would use worse sinners to judge His own sinful people. Then, Habakkuk eagerly awaits God’s response. 

We must learn to wait in faith on God’s promises

God puts his finger on Habakkuk’s pulse and says, “Write the vision…for still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay…but the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:2a, 3, 4b). He tells Habakkuk first to learn one important lesson: wait in faith on God’s promises to be revealed. Waiting and trusting are two of the hardest disciplines in our walk with God, yet they are vital. We must maintain a deep well of faith that trusts the person and promises of God over what our eyes can see. The Apostle Paul quotes Habakkuk to say that the justified live by this faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). How do we learn to trust God more than our eyesight? By looking backward at God’s faithfulness and forward in faith. This is the kind of faith that keeps you preaching when you see little fruit and the kind of faith that keeps you praying when you see no answer and keeps you hungry for God in the desert seasons.

God then pronounces the woes to come upon the Chaldeans. So God will use evil Chaldea to judge His people, but will then judge them for it. Some may wonder, “How can God use evil in His purposes and then judge those He uses to commit the evil?” This is a profound question and one we cannot and dare not avoid. The answer is found in the cross of Christ. Was God sovereign over the death of His Son? Yes. Did God hold those responsible who killed His Son? Yes. Acts 4:27-28 give it to us clearly: “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” We see this also with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. At times, God is said to harden his heart and at times Pharaoh is said to harden his heart. The answer is both. God guides the evil without compromising His justice. In the midst of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint is one of those profound promises of end time salvation for His people. Habakkuk 2:14 states, “for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The end result of God’s mysterious ways is God’s greater glory.

We must root our joy in God, not better circumstances

At the end of this dialogue with God, we find a different man than at the start. He began perplexed by God and he ends praising God. He began confused by God’s ways and he ends comforted by God’s wisdom. God called Habakkuk to a deep faith and he now displays it. Habakkuk ends his prayer with praise: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Hab. 3:17-19). Habakkuk rooted his joy in a sovereign and good God, not better circumstances. This deep joy in God is the key to a living faith. Missionary pastor Samuel Pearce once wrote, “I felt that were the universe destroyed, and I the only being in it besides God, HE is fully adequate to my complete happiness; and had I been in an African wood, surrounded with venomous serpents, devouring beasts, and savage men, in such a frame I should be the subject of perfect peace and exalted joy” (A Heart for Missions by Andrew Fuller).

May we praise our God along with Habakkuk. And may we learn to sing with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Altar Calls

David Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) was a Welsh Protestant minister, preacher, and medical doctor who pastored at Westminster Chapel in London for almost 30 years. Considered by many to be one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, Lloyd-Jones was devoted to fervent prayer and faithful ministry of the word. His passion for Spirit-empowered preaching, which he defined as “logic on fire,” made a profound and lasting impact on the church on both sides of the Atlantic.

Preaching and Calling for Decisions

In 1969, he delivered a series of lectures on the essence of powerful preaching to the students of Westminster Theological Seminary. These essays were later compiled and published as the book Preaching & Preachers,which has become a definitive text on biblical exposition. One of the many topics he addresses is that of ‘altar calls’: the issue of whether or not a gospel minister should call for decisions at the conclusion of his sermon by inviting people to come forward to be saved.

Personally, Lloyd-Jones did not subscribe to this practice and offered several compelling reasons why preachers should likewise avoid such invitations. But he also makes an important and charitable point regarding his position: “I am in no way querying the motives or the sincerity of those who use this method, or the fact that there have been genuine converts” (Preaching & Preachers, 295). God has surely used altar calls or other forms of invitations as a means of conversion for many. However, that does not mean that the practice is biblically sound.

While much more could be said about the history and the confusion that results from altar calls, below is simply a summary of the arguments against the practice which Lloyd-Jones gives in his lecture. Whether his reasons are compelling to you or not, you decide.

The Argument from History

Far from being a New Testament practice or a pattern throughout the entire history of the church, altar calls only came into the life of the church during the nineteenth century. In particular, the focus on calling for decisions was a result of the ministry of Charles G. Finney (1792-1875). As the father of American revivalism, Finney promoted several “new measures” in an attempt to produce spiritual conversions at his evangelistic meetings. One of these strategies was the so-called ‘anxious bench’ where people were invited to make decisions on the spot, and served as a precursor to the altar calls of today.

However, if one examines the teaching of Charles Finney, it becomes clear that his theology was radically different from the evangelical faith. Lloyd-Jones explains that “it is not an accident that it came in with Finney, because ultimately this is a matter of theology” (285). If the goal is to preach Christ in the power of the Spirit, then the results are left up to God. But if the goal is conversion—a result that only God can bring about— then ends will justify the means. Lloyd-Jones also adds that, at the same time, “we must never forget that an Arminian like John Wesley and others did not use this method” (285).

Pressuring the Will

Calling for decisions at the conclusion of a sermon applies direct pressure to the will of the hearer. However, Lloyd-Jones argues that it is dangerous, even wrong, to address the will in this manner.  Such an approach can produce results, but those results “may have no real relationship to the Truth” (288). His reasoning comes from Paul’s words to the Romans: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6:17). Notice the order: their choice to obey came from the heart, and the heart had been moved by the truth of the gospel which they had first been taught.

Lloyd-Jones explains that the will is to be approached through the mind and then the affections. “As the mind grasps [the Truth], and understands it, the affections are kindled and moved, and so in turn the will is persuaded and obedience is the outcome. In other words, the obedience is not the result of direct pressure on the will, it is the result of an enlightened mind and a softened heart” (286). Yes, we want sinners to obey the gospel and choose to follow Jesus, but the preacher must be first concerned with proclaiming the word of Christ and praying that his hearers may “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; see also Rom. 10:17).

In reality, pressuring the will “may produce a condition in which what has determined the response of the man who ‘comes forward’ is not so much the Truth itself as, perhaps, the personality of the evangelist, or some vague general fear, or some other kind of psychological influence” (286-87). A person might choose to come forward to escape the torments of hell or to receive promised blessing from God—but you don’t have to be born again to want blessings or escape from suffering. (A similar argument can be made regarding applying pressure to the emotions, especially through the use of music. Have you ever heard of an altar call without music playing in the background?)

A Sinner’s Inability

Related to this idea of focusing on the will, Lloyd-Jones explains that this method “carries in it the implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and of self-conversion” (289). An unbeliever can be led to think that if they answer the invitation to raise their hand, walk the aisle, and say a prayer, then they will be saved. The danger with this thinking is that coming forward to an ‘altar’ is not always indicative of true repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus. “This method tends to produce a superficial conviction of sin, if any at all” (289). It can lead a person to believe that conversion is the work of man rather than the work of God.

While salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, available to all who repent and believe the gospel, sinners will never obey the gospel unless the Holy Spirit first does the work of regeneration (more on this below). The Apostle Paul makes this abundantly clear: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Unless God makes us alive together with Christ by grace his grace, we will remain spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins; salvation is the gift of God, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:1-10).

Again, God may very well use a sermon to convict people of their sin and grant them the gift of repentance and faith so that, when a call is given, they respond wholeheartedly. But the bottom line is that God alone gives the growth; God alone gives life to the dead and calls nonexistent faith into existence (Rom. 4:17). To insist that an altar call is necessary for people to “make a decision for Christ”—that a sinner simply needs to be given a chance to choose and respond to an invitation in order to be saved—is an unbiblical notion.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

This leads Lloyd-Jones to emphasize what he considers the most serious issue: a misunderstanding of the doctrine of regeneration. “This work is the work of the Holy Spirit, and His work alone, no one else can do it. The true work of conviction of sin, and regeneration, and the giving of the gift of faith and new life is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. And as it is His work it is always a thorough work; and it is always a work that will show itself” (291). As an illustration of this, Lloyd-Jones refers to Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, and how his hearers cried out under conviction, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They didn’t wait for an invitation to respond, and no music was needed to set the mood; the Spirit did the work.

Paul again explains this in unmistakable terms: “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom. 9:16). Those who receive Christ and believe in his name are those who are have been born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). In short, regeneration precedes faith. Even Jesus himself said that a sinner is unable to come to him unless the Father draws him (John 6:44)!

Advocates of altar calls insist that such invitations allow room for the Holy Spirit to work. But Scripture is abundantly clear the Holy Spirit of God works through the word of God! This isn’t to say that a preacher doesn’t need to instruct his hearers on what repentance looks like, or how to begin living life as a disciple of Jesus; even Peter told his hearers to repent and be baptized! (In fact, baptism—not responding to an altar call—is the biblical way we are to publicly identify ourselves with the church of Christ.) This also doesn’t mean that a pastor doesn’t need to be available after a sermon to speak and pray with those under conviction. Lloyd-Jones was insistent that a preacher must make himself available. But the work of conviction and regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit, and far be it from us to use means that imply (whether we think it does or not) that we can manipulate his work.

What Then Shall We Do?

Ministers of the gospel must boldly proclaim the words of our Lord to a lost and dying world: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28)! “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25)! Yet preaching the word and calling for decisions should not be separated in our thinking. A separate altar call is not necessary for the Spirit to do his work. “The appeal is a part of the message; it should be so inevitably. The sermon should lead men to see that this is the only thing to do” (296).

As the truth of the gospel is declared, as we prayerful preach the word in full reliance upon the sovereign power of the Spirit, the hearts of our hearers will either be hardened or softened. The word of God will be either the aroma of death or the aroma of life (2 Cor. 2:14-17). Our concern should not be with decisions or immediate visible results, but the Spirit’s work of regeneration and his fruit of repentance, faith, and love towards God and the brothers. In sum, as Lloyd-Jones reminds us, “We must learn to trust the Spirit and to rely upon His infallible work” (296).


For Further Reading:

Preaching and Preachers, by Martyn Lloyd-Jones

The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Ian H. Murray

The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, by Steven J. Lawson

Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, by Ian H. Murray

The Perils of Preaching

Preaching: Google defines it as “the delivery of a sermon or religious address to an assembled group of people, typically in church.” BDAG defines it as “an official announcement, proclamation, of the content of a herald’s proclamation.” I define it as “perilous.”

Seriously. Outside of being a husband and a father preaching has unquestionably become the most difficult and dangerous task I have ever undertaken. Let me explain.

The Work of Interpretation

If you’re a pastor, or regularly exegete Scripture for a study of some sort, you understand not only the real labor that goes into properly interpreting the Word for the consumption of another but also the reverent fear that accompanies misinterpretation.

Let’s face it, anyone can take a verse, paragraph, or passage and mangle it like a playful cat with its recently caught mouse. But, to take into consideration the Testament, Genre, Author, Audience, Purpose of the Book, Cultural, Historical, Grammatical, Christological, Theological, and Applicational (of course, this list is not meant to be exhaustive) context of a passage is work; it’s hard work. To misinterpret could very well led to misapplication and I don’t have to remind you (but I will) of Jesus’ words about the “millstone, river, and causing sin in a little one” (Matthew 18 & Luke 17).

Careful work in the office with the Scriptures is an absolute necessity for the work of interpretation and to neglect that is dangerous.

The Struggle of Application

First, let me say that I don’t mean that the struggle of application is that I struggle with telling YOU how to apply what the passage says. The struggle of application begins with me. It’s a trap that I’ve fallen into as a preacher and I don’t think I’m alone. Here’s how it goes:

My personal devotional reading begins to turn into some version of sermon-prep, the books I am reading begins turning into some version of quotes and illustrations for the sermon I’m preparing, and the notes in the margins of my Bible begin to look like “You cannot…” “We cannot…” “No one should…” and “If you…” instead of “I cannot…I should…If I…”

Somehow, somewhere, sometimes, I stop reading and learning and pursuing Christ and I start prepping all the time, ceasing personally applying the glories of the Gospel to my own needy soul. Needless to say, that descent leads down a perilous road.

The Pain of Mortification

Maybe I’m alone in this one (although I doubt it) but killing sin week after week after week is painful. Sure, I want to be “pruned that I might bear more fruit” just like the next Jesus-lover but I’m just being honest; pruning is painful.

Between Sunday sermons, Sunday School, New Believers & New Members Class, Sunday Night Men’s Group, Monday AM study, and personal discipleship with others through the week I find myself engulfed in the Word of God. That’s a good thing! What an honor and, truthfully, a joy to have been called to serve the Lord and His Church in this capacity. But (and this is a big “But”), do you know what I find in every single page of Scripture? Sin in me. I don’t measure up. I am constantly under the conviction of the Holy Spirit as I study and as I teach/preach.

Now, before you rise and take the stones of “That’s too much Law, Don, and not enough Grace” to bury me with I want to agree with you. The Law is meant to reveal sin but also to drive us to Calvary and sometimes in the laborious and perilous task of killing sin I stop too soon at the revelation of sin, wallow in fear and pity, then walk away feeling discouraged that I’ll never measure up.

But Jesus did.

The Joy of the Gospel

It’s true, I’ll never measure up but I know the One who not only measured up but voluntarily gave up His place of glory, sacrificially took my place of shame, and victoriously defeated death that I might be given His righteousness and not be shackled by my hideously damning unrighteousness; His name is Jesus Christ.

Paul David Trip said, “If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching it to yourself over and over again, you will look to another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart” (Dangerous Calling, pg. 36). I couldn’t agree more and have yet to find anything outside of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that can settle my heart. The Gospel is the salve of the soul and the right interpretation & application of the Scriptures, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is just as necessary for you (us, me) as it is for your (our, my) people.

Pastors, preachers, evangelists, and teachers, don’t stop at the Work of Interpretation, the Struggle of Application, or the Pain of Mortification take yourself to the Joy of the Gospel. Revel in the glories of the Christ who loves you and gave himself for you too (not just your hearers). The perils of preaching are overcome in the protections afforded even you (I mean me) at Calvary “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph. 1). Amen

Confess Even If You’re Not Wrong

There is a prayer in Nehemiah chapter 1. This prayer is a response to Nehemiah hearing that tragedy has hit his homeland, Jerusalem. This prayer of Nehemiah is filled with praise, petition, and confession. Part of his prayer goes like this: “I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned.  We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses” (Nehemiah 1:6b-7).

Nehemiah acknowledged that he and the people of Israel had sinned against God. It’s interesting to notice that Nehemiah says “we” as he confesses sin. He doesn’t just look introspectively and confess his own personal sins. He confesses the sins of Israel corporately. He confesses the sins of his people as a unit.

Confession of sin is something we should be doing regularly. Most of the time when we do this, we are looking inwardly as to what we need confess, what we need to work on, what we need to improve. The thought of confessing to God the sins of others may seem like a foreign concept. But we are all a part of a larger body. We are all part of a family, church, city, and nation. The sins of each of those communities are sins we need to confess to God. How often do we think of ourselves in terms of family, church, or nation, and not just an individual when it comes to confession of sin? When Nehemiah confesses some of these sins, these are things that he, individually, may or may not have done, but nevertheless, he is part of Israel, so he confesses them to God. Nehemiah lumps himself in with Israel and confessed their sin corporately. If we live in community with our family or our church family, this community mindset should be seen in our prayer and confession as well.

We may or may not be guilty of certain sins that our family, church, or nation are guilty of, but we are a part of that community and as community members we go to God and confess the community’s shortcomings.

Imagine you are having a family get-together at a public park and one of your family members gets into an altercation with a stranger over who saw an open picnic table first,  and after they have argued for a few minutes, you notice that your family member has now shoved this stranger to the ground. You run in to stop the fight. You send your family member away and you begin to apologize to the stranger for what has happened even though you had nothing to do with it.

Why? Because you are a part of the community that has harmed this person and you feel a sense of guilt and responsibility. The same is to be true in the communities in which we belong. We are to realize when the community that we belong to has failed God and confess those failures to Him.

Confession of sin, both corporate and individual, should be a regular habit in our lives. When we confess our sin to God, we are acknowledging that we are wrong, and we are showing God our great dependence on Him.

For the unbeliever who confesses his sin and turns in faith to Jesus, he is acknowledging his wrongdoing and his great dependence on God for salvation. He is acknowledging that he is a sinner and that he cannot save himself. He is completely and utterly dependent on the work of Christ on his behalf for salvation. For the believer, confession of sin shows his great need of sanctification. He is acknowledging that although he is redeemed and his salvation is secure, he is not where he needs to be.

Confess sin regularly.

The God Who Runs Us Down

“Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

When my children were younger and encountered this famous nursery rhyme, they requested I read it to them every night. They didn’t realize at the time, but their story choice was an indicator of much more than they knew. There is something in each of us, even from an early age, that longs to run; and we often can’t explain why that desire is there. It is more than what psychologists refer to as our “fight or flight response,” because of what we often run from. We run not only from danger, but also from grace. We run from a God who intends not our harm, but our ultimate good. As Augustine has put it, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” This is one reason the story of Jonah is so appealing to us. Yet in the book of Jonah we meet a God who outruns sinners and graciously overpowers their stubbornness and sin. There are two important lessons we learn from Jonah.

We Run because We’re Deeply Depraved

The minor prophets, or “The book of the twelve” as their referred to, are among the least familiar portions of Scripture. Even the best Bible students among us would be hard-pressed if asked on the fly to summarize Obadiah or Zephaniah. Yet this portion of Scripture gives us a vivid panorama of God’s glory. In the minor prophets, we aren’t merely told that God is gracious or loving or holy or just. We see God in high definition. We encounter the God who roars like a lion, loves like a Husband, consumes like a fire, and sings over His people. But when we come to Jonah, God flips the script a bit. Instead of meeting another prophet ready and willing to relay God’s message, we find one running in the complete opposite direction. Also, instead of God sending His message to Israel/Judah, He sends it to their enemies. And that’s why Jonah started strapping up His sandals and getting ready to run. “Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (1:1-3).

With a population of over 130,000, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. And Nineveh was a perverse and cruel city. A city that combined rampant sexual immorality with some of the most gruesome war crimes. Not only that, but Nineveh had earned a reputation for being the bitter enemies of God’s people. When called upon to preach coming judgment on this city, you would think Jonah would have leaped at the chance. Yet the reason Jonah didn’t is revealed later in the book. In the prophet’s own words, he says: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:1) Even though God’s message was one of judgment, Jonah knew God’s character better than that. He didn’t want the slightest chance that God might show grace to such an evil city.

Like Jonah, we run from God because we are rebels in our hearts. Ever since our first ancestors ate that fruit in the garden and listened to the snake, we’ve been pursuing our own authority. We have chosen to be our own gods. And when God calls us to share His message with those undeserving, we run because we are unloving. The reason Jonah ran is the same reason we run from sharing God’s message: we are selfish to the core. We may give several reasons for why we don’t share the gospel with others, but the ultimate reason is that we’re selfish. In Jonah, we see just how selfish we are. By the end of the book, Jonah is angry at God and even begs God to kill him rather than redeem the Ninevites. It’s a good thing God didn’t leave Jonah to himself, and it’s a good thing He doesn’t leave us to ourselves. That never turns out too well anyway (read Romans 1:18-32).

God Runs us Down because He is Truly Gracious

It says a lot about us that we run from God. But it also says a lot about God that He runs us down. If Jonah were the only biblical book preserved for us, it would be sufficient to give us a robust theology of man’s depravity, God’s sovereignty, and mission. God sovereignly appoints one thing after another to stop Jonah and get him set on the mission God intended. He hurls a great wind in the direction of Jonah’s ship, then appoints a great fish to swallow him up once he is thrown overboard, then calls the fish to spit Jonah up. While in the fish, Jonah asserts, “salvation belongs to the LORD” (2:9) and it is this truth that leads to God speaking to the fish to spit him up. Since salvation is solely the prerogative of God, then none but God can determine who can and cannot enjoy this salvation. So God has officially run down Jonah, but that wasn’t all God was after. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” (3:1-2). God got to Jonah so he could get to the Ninevites.

In his book Rediscovering Discipleship, Robby Gallaty famously stated, “The Gospel came to you because it was on its way to someone else.” It is truly gracious of God to use weak and often stubborn sinners like us in the grand plan of saving others. When Moses made several excuses why God should use someone else, God ran Him down and used Him. When Gideon doubted and questioned God’s choice of Him, God was determined to use Him. Why is God so determined to use such sinners in His plans of global missions? To better display the glory of His saving grace to those who don’t deserve it. The reluctant prophet finally caves to the omnipresent God of the universe. He goes to Nineveh and preaches his eight word sermon of God’s coming judgment and the people miraculously repent. I was given an audio Bible for Christmas one year and the story of Jonah ended at chapter 3. Listening to the narrator go from reading the end of Jonah 3 to the beginning of Micah seemed like a perfect ending to a great story. But Jonah contains another chapter for a reason. God has more for us to learn about ourselves and God’s mission in this world. Jonah sits a safe distance from the city to watch God perform Sodom and Gomorrah 2.0. It’s as if he’s got his popcorn ready for a fireworks display. He’s perhaps the only prophet who didn’t want his recipients to repent of their sins. Then God appoints a nice and shady plant to grow to protect Jonah from the baking sun. Then a worm to eat the plant and an east wind to leave Jonah hot and miserable.

What is God’s point? Jonah’s love for the plant and the shade and lack of love for the Ninevites reveals just how inwardly bent he is. “And the Lord said, ‘You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?’” (4:10-11). And with that the book of Jonah ends. No story of Jonah repenting of his poor attitude and rebellion. Just a question from God to Jonah and all the perpetual readers of his book: should not I pity Nineveh? God wants everyone to know that He has a heart for the heartless. He shows mercy to the merciless. For all who repent and believe in Him, God promises full and final salvation. Later Paul would come from the place to which Jonah was running: Tarsus (same area as Tarshish). And Paul would go on God’s mission around the known world to spread the Gospel of His Son. He would write, “No one seeks for God” and yet He would also write, “God demonstrates his love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 3:11; 5:8). So God’s redeeming grace is more stubborn than our rebellion. The opposite of running from God is to abide in Him. This is why Jesus would later say, “Abide in me and I in you” (John 15:4a).

In his book Running from Mercy, pastor Anthony Carter writes, “You cannot hide from God. A better course of action is to hide in God.”

May we all humbly confess our selfish tendency to run from God and seek to live abiding in the light of His relentless grace.

Lewis On the Christian Life: A Review

As we do from time to time, we take a moment and reflect on the importance of Books and in such moments give a recommendation or review of one such book that we have read.  Specifically, this month I want to focus on Joe Rigney’s “Lewis on the Christian Life: Becoming Truly Human in the Presence of God.” Now the Lewis Rigney has set out here to unpack before us is non-other than C.S. Lewis, the English giant, scholar, and apologist. The skeptic turned Christian has left behind a plethora of writings and is still one of the most-beloved Christian children’s authors, I would say to this day. Lewis is a man who loved to think of things in two worlds the world of the real and the world of the pretend. Rigney in this work helps us to see that at the core of how Lewis saw and understood the Christian life stood an understanding of the world that was far more complex than most would imagine, and from this view of humanity he applied the teachings of scripture and at times got it right and at other times, created a lot of confusion.

But alas, let’s begin with the good stuff. Rigney is an advent Lewis reader and supporter. He previously wrote a book called Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles in which he unpacked much of Lewis’ beliefs on how to live out the Christian life from the tales told in the Chronicles of Narnia. As such the Chronicles, for the most part, are left out of this book, so if you are a huge Chronicles fan I would suggest reading his first book, however If you enjoy the whole of Lewis works or are familiar with only a few then this book may open some more interesting explorations for you, as Rigney dives deep into some of his letters and writings to help pull out the depth of Lewis ideas. This process is exciting to see as you read how his views intermingle through his work.

Another thing that I appreciated, much like other books in the series, is that Rigney doesn’t shy away from Lewis’ more controversial issues such as the atonement and purgatory. He unpacks Lewis through His writings and walks the reader through how Lewis’ arrived at the places he did. Now I will say Rigney does spend a bit of time apologizing for Lewis but didn’t do it in such a way that he hides any of Lewis’ beliefs. As such, I found this to be a very positive aspect of the book as you are able to see through all of his writings how Lewis struggles with the notion of penal substitutionary atonement, and how through his struggle he clings to the aspects of the atonement that are more easy for him to grasp. If you want to see the outworking of Lewis’ thoughts on these subjects laid out in his own words that is what Rigney gives you and he does it in such a way that you walk away understanding Lewis, not necessarily agreeing with him, but understanding him.

I will say though this book is a journey, it is the longest so far written in the “On the Christian Life” series that crossway has put out and it covers a lot of different topics from practical Christian living to the four loves and thoughts on heaven and hell and all sorts of paths along the way. Now I don’t want it to sound like it is disorganized, it is not, however it covers a lot that at times can slow down the pace and feel out of sorts, so if you have read some of the other books in the series this one is a little more in depth and hefty at times into some of Lewis thoughts, which as I said can be both a great benefit and at times a hindrance.

Therefore, overall it was a thoughtful read, as it gives deeper clarity into the thinking of the apologetical legend C.S. Lewis himself. If you are a fan of Lewis’s body of work, you will enjoy seeing how Rigney dives deep into some of his works to get to the meat of Lewis thinking. If you have only read Narnia or Mere Christianity this will help open your eyes to a fuller spectrum of how Lewis viewed the world and how some of the things you read there are more fully fleshed out in other texts. So as with most Rigney works it is worth the time and effort.

When Waters Rise

I live in the Illinois River Bottoms. Three hundred feet to the East stands a sweeping bluff of timber and steep draws that run for miles and miles North and South. Three miles straight West lies the Illinois River with another bluff face just West of it that reaches the Mississippi River. It really is a beautiful site.

However, if you’ve watched or read the news over the last several weeks you know that the River is not its customary three miles from my home. As a matter of fact, just out my window I can see her wind-tossed waves in my neighbors’ cornfield; only 500 feet away. This flood is second only to the Great Flood of 1993 which reached its crest on August 3. Lord willing, we reached ours on Friday, June 8.

I have worked with locals, people coming in from around the state, prisoners, and the National Guard to build makeshift walls and sandbag walls in an attempt to keep the waters of the Illinois, and her local tributaries, from spilling over into millions (and I mean millions upon millions) of acres of corn and unplanted fields. It really has been incredible; so many moving parts in the flood relief effort and so many people giving their time and money to help their neighbors.

To this very moment, the Lord has prevented mass flooding in our immediate area. Praise the Lord.

It’s not the levies holding, the makeshift walls, the tens of thousands of sandbags, the countless hours spent preparing & delivering hundreds and hundreds of meals out of our Fellowship Hall, or even the innumerable amount of manhours that has gone into the total effort that has been the most memorable. The most memorable moment took place yesterday morning in worship.

One of our farmers, unprompted and unplanned, stood to testify of God’s glory and God’s omnipotence in the flood. He reminded us of Job 38:8-11 where God declares to Job that it was Him who said to the sea “this far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed…” We didn’t stop the water, the Lord did.

This is a man whose immediate and extended family farms a considerable amount of ground in the Bottoms; a family who, if the waters rise any more, a levy fails, or our feeble attempt to hold back what is already higher than the levies bombs, stands to lose more than I can imagine. But he is also a man who knows his Creator and Sustainer, his Protector and his Provider. Unshaken by the potential loss, he was moved by his God’s glory and power in the flood and the opportunities the rising waters have provided for us to share the love of Christ and the Gospel of Christ with those involved in the relief effort.

Indeed, the floods come. Jesus said in Matthew 7:24-27 that the rain falls, the floods come, the winds blow and beat against the houses (lives) that we have built. But those who build their lives on the Rock, the Solid Foundation of Jesus Christ, will not fall when waters rise. Why? Because He sustains them. Even amidst the rising waters, those whose Foundation will not sweep away in rushing waters rest…and even praise Him while waters rise.

When “waters rise” in your life, do you cower in fear of what you can lose or stand confidently upon your Foundation and praise Him that nothing comes without His Sovereign declaration or allowance; trusting Him knowing that it can only work out for your good?

I don’t know what the future holds for the waters around us, but I do know who holds that waters back and who releases them when & where He wills. And you know what? He is faithful and immutable; maybe the two attributes of God that give me the greatest comfort. When waters rise, may we “be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Mt. 7:24).

Psalm 61:2b-3a—“Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge…”

Reflections on The Banner of Truth Conference

Sometimes, it can seem like there is an overload of pastoral and theological conferences being held. It is true that a person can become to engrossed with conferences using them as a means of replacing being a part of a healthy local church. Conferences though can be immensely helpful and refreshing. Last week, I had the privilege of attending The Banner of Truth’s East Coast Conference in Elizabethtown, PA. I believe that this is the conference you need to attend every year. Here are a few reflections on the conference:

1) An emphasis on the dependence of the pastor upon the Spirit. The theme of the Banner of Truth conference was “I Believe in the Holy Spirit.” The person and work of the Holy Spirit is often overlooked or misunderstood. There can be an overreaction to the excesses of the Charismatic movement which can cause Reformed believers to shy away from understanding the glorious work of the Spirit. Each session of the conference did a marvelous job of exploring different themes related to the Holy Spirit. Even as Reformed pastors, we must guard against and fight the tendency to believe and trust in our flesh. Ordinary means of grace ministry calls our focus to the gradual work of the Holy Spirit. These means are not flashy, but they force us to see how central the work of the Spirit is. The pastor is not a performer but a clay jar bearing the beautiful treasure of the gospel. The preaching, praying, and singing at this conference exhibit all these marks for they were driven by the work of the Holy Spirit.

2) A band of brothers, not a celebrity circuit marks this conference. This was not a conference promoting selfies with the speakers or book signings. It was refreshing to attend a conference and feel like I was at home. The brothers at Banner intentionally design and organize this conference as a place where you can connect with like-minded brothers. There were Presbyterians, Baptists, a few Anglicans, and even a United Methodist brother who attended the conference. Most of the men who spoke were unfamiliar names to myself, but they were all a blessing to my heart. This was not a place about a theological fad, a hip center for the young, restless, and reformed. A place of deep theology, spiritual maturity as well as informality and a familial spirit permeated the conference. How much the heartbeat of the Banner of Truth needs to go forth in many places! The speakers and trustees sit among those who are in attendance. There is no hierarchy, no roped off sections in the auditorium but a testimony to our unity in Jesus Christ and our need for one another.

3) Books, books, and more books! While this should not be the main reason you attend a Banner of Truth conference, it certainly should rank high on the list! The discounts for everyone and the bigger discounts for first-time attendees are amazing! The Banner of Truth Trust truly seeks to provide believers with rich books that are both tested by time and that are being written by faithful brothers. I am glad I drove to the conference so that I could fill my truck up with the books that I purchased! It blessed my heart to see these men so joyful in recommending books to attendees and doing all they could to get good resources into the hands of those there.

4) New Testament Baptist Church loves me tremendously. This reflection is obviously very personal, but I must make it. My church family encouraged me to attend this conference and granted me a two-week sabbatical to enjoy the time at the conference. I am so blessed to pastor a church that is not hesitant to give me a time to recharge my batteries. While the Banner conference filled my heart with great joy, it still does not compare to the sweet joy I know each Lord’s Day when I gather with my family of faith at NTBC. Thank you, my brothers and sisters, for granting me the privilege to journey northward to PA!

If I had to pick one conference I would attend next year (outside of our own Carey-Fuller Conference at NTBC or the annual Publicans Conference), it would be the Banner of Truth Conference. Financially, your registration fee covers lodging and meals. It is economical. However, the spiritual benefits cannot be placed with a price tag. Do yourself a favor and mark May 26-28 on your calendar for PA! Next year’s theme will be on “Communion with God.” Lord willing, I hope to see y’all there!

 

Fearlessly Forward

If you’ve been on this earth long you understand that life includes a struggle against serious opposition. A battle, in fact, that can sometimes seem like a losing one; even for Christians. It is not uncommon for us to feel apprehensive as we walk through life, because it can often seem like every time things begin to go well, the floor unsettles beneath us.

It’s that, “Here we go again!”, feeling. The impression that, no matter what we do, no matter how intentional we go about our lives, no matter how earnestly we exert ourselves, no matter how faithful we are to our family, our employments, or our church, and no matter how much struggle we’ve already come through, things seem to keep ending up in frustration. It’s as if the world around us was actually in opposition to us. And then, of course, we remember from the Bible that it actually is.

I think the Apostle Paul felt something akin to this in Acts 18 when he entered the city of Corinth on his second missionary journey. I think he felt like every time he jumped out of one frying pan he landed in another fire, so to speak. Because from one city to another he felt the painful, steady drip of opposition.

Consider what Paul experienced:

  • His journey began with a terribly sad disagreement between himself and a beloved Christian brother, Barnabas (Acts 15:36-40).
  • He soon faced uncertainty over his direction as he was made to wait upon God’s call (Acts 16:6-10).
  • Though people were saved in Philippi, persecution reared its ugly head towards him (Acts 16:19-24).
  • While some believed in Jesus upon his arrival in Thessalonica, persecution sprang up once again (Acts 17:5).
  • Though the word of the gospel was eagerly received by the Jews of Berea, hard opposition still followed him (Acts 17:13-14).
  • Finally, while in Athens, the response to the resurrected Christ was feeble and he was even mocked (Acts 17:32-34).

So, as you might imagine, when Paul finally arrived in Corinth, he was pretty gun shy. In fact, he later wrote of this fear to the Corinthian believers: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3).

But while he was in Corinth, God spoke. He interrupted Paul’s “Here we go again!” attitude, with the truth of his word:

“And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”” (Acts 18:9-10)

The Lord gave Paul two commands: don’t be afraid and keep on preaching. And then he gave him three reasons why he should obey these commands when opposition came. And these are the same reasons why followers of Christ today can fearlessly go forward in this life.

First, God is with us.

In v. 10 the Lord says, “for I am with you.” Why should Paul not be afraid? Why should he go on speaking truth? Because God was with him.

The same is true for every believer in the Lord Jesus, for in every place we go we are accompanied by God’s affectionate presence. There is no place Christians can go where the Spirit of Jesus is not by our side. The Lord has always been with his people (Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 1:23). In fact, his presence is the lifeblood of the church and all our missionary endeavors:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Can you imagine what this would have meant to Paul to hear these words from his Lord? Can you fathom how much they would have lifted his spirits after many hard days? And do you recognize that these words have the same intention for us today?

Fear not. Go on speaking. Don’t be silent. For your God is with you.

Secondly, God is sovereign.

In v. 10, the Lord also told Paul, “no one will attack you to harm you.” What impresses me about this statement is its absoluteness. God does not merely say, “I will protect you.” Though that would have been comforting. Instead, the Lord tells Paul what will absolutely, positively, not happen to him.

While he was in Corinth, Paul would essentially be bulletproof. Nothing would hurt him. God would sovereignly prevent all attacks from getting to him, keeping all harm from coming his way. God is here expressing full mastery over Paul’s situation. He insinuates that he is in complete control over each of Paul’s troubles, fully sovereign over the Apostle’s very life.

The Lord always directs the events of his people, the church, that his gospel might go forward (Acts 18:12-17; 23:10-11; 27:23-24). While it is true that everything happens for a reason, that statement is woefully incomplete. For everything happens for God’s reason. Everything that happens within the church of God, is determined by the Son of God, to bring about the glory of God. Even the hard opposition faced by his people.

Do you see the hand of God over your life? Fear not. Go on speaking. For your God is sovereign.

Third, God is working his plan.

Finally, the Lord says in v. 10, “for I have many in this city who are my people.” When the Lord says, “my people,” he is referring to his chosen people: all those he has “appointed to eternal life” (Acts 13:45-49), who have believed, or will (with certainty) believe, upon the Son of God.

So, think what this would have meant to Paul to hear such words. He had gone from one city to another and, though he’d witnessed a few conversions, he was forced from each location before the gospel could make a larger impact. But now, the Lord comforted Paul by telling him that in Corinth many of “my people” are here.

We can think of Paul as a miner in God’s mine and he’s digging for gold that belongs to God. He hasn’t had much success recently. In fact, it’s been frustrating. He’s dug down deep and he’s bored through much rock. And though he’s found some of the precious metal, the labor has been extremely intensive. But now he’s being told, “Dig over here, for this is where my gold will be found.” After all that Paul had been through, he now learns that he had been brought to this precise day and location for a purpose: to mine for God’s people.

The same is true for us. If God has appointed his people to eternal life than we can be confident in our efforts to reach them. We can be confident that Christ is building his church. We can be certain that his kingdom will advance as he has ordained. And when we don’t see gold immediately, we can patiently wait upon him to break down the right walls.

We do face some hard opposition. But God is not done working. So, let us not fear but keep advancing the good news.