From the Archives: Hypothetical Salvation for Hypothetical Believers?

The atonement of Christ on the cross is central to the message of Christianity. To atone for something is to make amends or to make satisfaction for a wrong. This is exactly what we see on the cross – it is through the blood of Christ that the holy God and sinful man are brought together peaceably. By nature we’re at odds with God because of sin, and at the center of our message we find blood. The blood of Christ, which is able to bring sinners like us who were once far away from God, near to Him. This is why Christianity is seen as a religion with a central message of redemption and reconciliation. By the blood of Christ we are redeemed from sin and reconciled to God. So we see at a very basic level that any representation of Christianity that diminishes the centrality of a wrath bearing atonement is a false form of Christianity.

Even from the earliest chapters and books of the Bible we see atonement as central to those who would do life with God. In Eden, after the fall of man, for the first time in history God made atonement for His people by shedding the blood of an animal and using it’s skin to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel offer sacrifices in Genesis 4, Noah offered sacrifices to God in Genesis 8, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all do the same thing each time God meets them or blesses them. We see many other offerings in Genesis, but when Israel gets into slavery in Egypt and when God calls Moses to go to Pharaoh and say ‘Let My people go’ in behalf of God it is here where we see the doctrine of atonement coming into view clearly.

After 9 plagues completely devastate the Egyptians, God brings a dreadful decree to close out His assault on Egypt. He tells Moses of His plans and Moses tells Pharaoh in Exodus 11:4-6, ‘Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die…there shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again.’ Moses leaves Pharaoh’s presence and God gives Him further directions in chapter 12, ‘This month shall be for you the beginning of months…On the 10th day of this month every man shall take a lamb for his household and on the 14th day of the month you shall kill the lamb at twilight. Then take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house…the blood shall be a sign for you…and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.’

It was the blood that saved Israel from death, it was the blood that secured their redemption from Egypt. Paul picks up this theme in 1 Cor. 5 where he calls Christ our Passover Lamb. The parallel is clear is it not? Just as the blood of the lamb secured Israel’s redemption from Pharaoh and Egypt and sent them on their way to the promise land, so too, it is now the blood of Christ, our Passover Lamb, that secures our redemption from Satan, sin, and death and sends us on our way to the greater Canaan. It was the blood of the lamb that atoned for Israel, it is the blood of the Lamb of God that atones for us.

From this point on, we see God instituting His Law, which has many prescriptions in it for various offerings and sacrifices intended to atone for the sin of the people. This Law is then what all of the Old Testament prophets courageously and consistently called God’s people back to. Therefore, atonement has always been central to the people of God, and when we come over into the New Testament we find that all the sacrificial atoning work of God culminating in one act of atonement, the cross of our Lord Jesus.

Now, just as the Old Testament atoning sacrifices were only applied to God’s people in the Old Testament, so too the greatest atoning sacrifice of all, the sacrifice of God’s Son, is only applied to God’s people in the New Testament.

6 points to show you this:

The Atonement is a Secured Redemption

Hebrews 9:11-12, ‘But when Christ appeared as a High Priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.’ This puts on display what we’ve seen already – in the Old Testament the high priest once a year would enter into the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people by the means of the blood of goats and calves, but Jesus, our true High Priest, entered the Most Holy Place to make atonement for God’s people once for all time, not by the blood of animals, but by His own blood. What was the result? The result was not that redemption was now possible, no, the result was that by doing this Jesus secured an eternal redemption. In 9:15-22 the author of Hebrews goes onto say that the only people who benefit from this atoning work are ‘those who are called.’

The Atonement was Accomplished

Romans 8:30, ‘And those whom He predestined He also called, and those whom He called He also justified, and those whom He justified He also glorified.’ In this passage Paul speaks of Christ’s work with such confidence that he uses the past tense for all of his main verbs, speaking that even glorification is already accomplished for God’s people through the work of God’s Son. This is why Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘It is finished!’ in John 19:30.

The Atonement is for the Church/Sheep

Ephesians 5:25-27, ‘Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the Church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.’ In these verses who is it that Christ loved? Who is it that Christ gave Himself up for? Who is it that Jesus cleansed by the water of the Word? Who is it that He’ll one day present to Himself in splendor by His atoning work? His Church. He loved the Church and gave Himself up for the Church, only the Church. John 10:11 also, ‘I am the good Shepherd. The good Shepherd lays His life down (for who??) the sheep.’ After saying this to the crowds Jesus a bit further on in 10:26 tells many who are listening to Him that they ‘are not among His sheep.’ Acts 20:28, ‘Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for (who?) the Church of God, which He obtained (how?) with His own blood.’

The Atonement Redeemed a People for Christ’s own Possession

Titus 2:14 speaks of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ ‘who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good works.’ Christ gave Himself to redeem a people, a particular people, for His own possession.John 11:51-52 speaks of this by saying the cross gathered into one people the children of God who were scattered abroad. Matthew 1:21 too, ‘Mary will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.’ Here we see Jesus’ name is connected with His mission. Why did He come? To save His people, from their sins.

The Atonement is Not for All but ‘Many’

Matthew 20:26-28, ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.’ Isaiah 53:11, ‘Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the Righteous One, My servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.’

The Atonement Purchased a Global People

Rev. 5:9-10, ‘And they sang a new song, saying ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed (purchased – NIV) people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a Kingdom of priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.’ See here again, the cross didn’t make salvation possible for people, a specific, a definite people were purchased on the cross.

I’ll end with one thought:

Jesus did not die to make salvation possible for everyone. He did not die to merely open the door of salvation and sit back hoping that people will accept His gospel. If that were true His death on the cross didn’t accomplish anything, it only made salvation attainable, and we cannot attain it on our own. This is a false view of the atoning work of Christ. Rather, the Biblical view is this: Jesus died and shed His blood to purchase His sheep, to secure the salvation of His Church, and to redeem the elect of God from every corner of the globe. In this manner we can say the atoning work of Christ on the cross is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect.

Charles Spurgeon said it well, ‘Some men cannot endure to hear the doctrine of election. I suppose they like to choose their own wives, but they are not willing that Christ should choose His own Bride, the Church.’

J.I. Packer said it too, ‘Christ did not win a hypothetical salvation for hypothetical believers, a mere possibility of salvation for any who might possibly believe, but a real salvation for His own chosen people.’

So we conclude: Jesus chooses His Bride, and Jesus dies for His bride, securing everything needed for the salvation of His own.

Five for Fuller

“I have long considered your father to be the greatest theologian of the century” is the testimony C.H. Spurgeon bore concerning Andrew Fuller. In a letter Spurgeon wrote to Fuller’s son, one giant among the Particular Baptists bore witness of the impact another great Particular Baptist had made on his own life.[1] What lessons are there for us to learn from Andrew Fuller in the 21st century? Since Spurgeon so commended Fuller, it would do us well to learn more from this great man. In his book, Ardent Love for Jesus, Dr. Michael Haykin provides three reasons why he appreciates Fuller and why we need to read and study him. I would like to incorporate those along with an additional two reasons on why Andrew Fuller is a figure from church history we need to become better acquainted with.

1) Theological Balance

Fuller battled against the extremes of hyper-Calvinism, strains of Arminianism, and a growing acceptance of heretical views such as Socinianism and Unitarianism. In the midst of all of this, Fuller never swerved away from a core commitment to the doctrines of grace. Fuller would also serve as the theologian behind the missionary movement that sent forth William Carey and others to India. Balance is such a key for pastoral ministry. Often, pastors are being pulled in one direction or another that can lead to extreme positions. In one of his final letters, Fuller wrote, “I have preached and written much against the abuse of the doctrine of grace, but that doctrine is all my salvation and all my desire. I have no other hope than from salvation by mere sovereign, efficacious grace through the atonement of my Lord and Saviour.”[2]

2) Gospel Friendships

The tendency to see one person as the key figure of a movement (think Luther, Calvin) fails to grasp how it is always a band of individuals working together. The apostle Paul lists men and women in most of his epistles testifying that the work of the kingdom is carried out by more than one person. The revival that God brought to the Particular Baptists at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century did not come in isolation. Fuller, along with men like William Carey, John Sutcliff, Samuel Pearce, John Ryland, Jr., and others, worked together and prayed together to see God save souls and revive the churches. Pastors need other pastors. The work of ministry cannot be done in the strength of one man.

3) Christian Piety

Living for the glory of the Triune God fueled Andrew Fuller. He was not interested in theology merely to have ammunition in order to argue with others. He wanted his thinking and living to be rooted in a deep commitment to the Word of God. Fuller longed for God to mold and conform his heart to the truths of Holy Scripture. He would write that to “glorify God, and recommend by our example the religion of the meek and lowly Jesus, are the chief ends for which it is worthwhile to live.”[3] Let us not be known only as defenders and proclaimers of orthodoxy but also as those who seek to practice the implications that come forth from biblical orthodoxy! Let us live grace-saturated, Christ-centered lives for the glory of God!

4) Faithful Churchman

Like the Particular Baptists before him, Andrew Fuller knew a deep love for the church of Jesus Christ. Fuller never apologized for the biblical convictions he held to when it came to Baptist polity and ecclesiology. However, Fuller did know that Baptist views on the church had caused some to grow too introspective and neglect evangelism. Fuller proclaimed, “The true churches of Jesus Christ travail for the salvation of men. They are the armies of the Lamb, the grand object of whose existence is to extend the Redeemer’s kingdom.”[4] In preaching ordination sermons for pastors, writing polemically in dealing with theological error, and serving as the first secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, Fuller’s heart burned with a love for the church. A holy zeal for the local church, not for a platform, needs to burn within pastors!

5) Evangelical Unity

While not hesitant to confess and defend Baptist distinctives, Fuller and his fellow Particular Baptists desired unity with like-minded evangelical defenders of the faith. John Sutcliff, Particular Baptist pastor in Olney, forged a friendship with John Newton. John Ryland’s friendship with John Erskine, Scottish Presbyterian minister, would provide the means for the great Particular Baptist prayer call for revival in 1784. Erskine sent Ryland a treatise written by Jonathan Edwards concerning prayer and revival. The Northamptonshire Association issued a call to the pastors and churches of the association to meet together to pray for revival. In this prayer call, the Baptists would pray not only for their churches to be revived but for other evangelical churches and denominations. As Michael Haykin notes, these men understood the kingdom was greater and larger than just the Particular Baptists![5] Let us be faithful to our convictions but let us also grow in charity towards those we would share so much with doctrinally and practically!

Conclusion

When William Carey was informed that Andrew Fuller had died, he spoke these three simple words: “I loved him”[6] Andrew Fuller was only a clay pot carrying forth the treasure of the gospel! What a faithful vessel of the gospel he was! A new generation needs to learn from the pastor of Kettering! The pastor-theologian faithfully plodding in the work of the kingdom is of far greater worth than all the jewels of this earth! He is a jewel in the crown of Christ! Press on!

[1] https://pastorhistorian.com/2014/05/12/letter-from-c-h-spurgeon-to-a-g-fuller-commending-andrew-fuller/

[2] Haykin, 90.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] Ibid., 89.

[5] Ibid., 66.

[6] Ibid., 89.

Keeping Children in the Worship Service

Our church has experienced a wonderful revitalization over the past few years. By God’s grace, we have endeavored to become a more Word-centered, gospel-driven, and Christ-exalting church, seeking to always be reformed according to Scripture. One of the more recent subjects we addressed was concerning our Lord’s Day worship and children’s ministry programming. Formerly, children were dismissed part way through the service for Kids Church. Now, rather than being dismissed along with the toddlers (ages 2-3) and preschoolers (ages 4-5), our elementary students (grades 1-5) continue to participate in the worship service with the rest of the congregation.

There is obviously a tremendous benefit in age-specific education. In fact, our toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary students currently use The Gospel Project curriculum either during the Sunday Classes hour or during the Kids Church portion of our Sunday morning service. We want them to be working through the Scriptures, seeing Jesus on every page, and becoming fluent in the gospel. However, there are several reasons that compelled us to keep our elementary students in the worship gathering for its entirety.

The Pattern and Power of Scripture

First, the pattern of Scripture supports keeping kids in the service. In the Old Testament, it appears that children were included in the corporate worship of the covenant community to hear the word of the Lord (Ex. 12:24-27; Deut. 31:9-13; Josh. 8:30-35; Neh. 8:1-8ff.; 12:43). The reason? Deuteronomy 31:12: “…that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.”

Second, in the letters written to the Ephesian and Colossian churches, Paul directly addresses wives and husbands, parents and children, bondservants and masters (Eph. 6:1-9; Col. 3:18-4:2). This suggests that children were present in the congregations where these letters were being read (cf. Col. 4:16)!

Third, if we truly believe that God’s Word is living and active, that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, that the Holy Spirit works through the Word to bring illumination, conviction, and repentance, then we must pray that the Word of God will reach the hearts of our children in ways that they may not even recognize. In Acts 2:39 Peter proclaims that the promise of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself. Yes, they may be thinking, reasoning, speaking, and acting like children; but as Albert Mohler reminds us, “the Word of God can reach where we cannot go.”

The Formative Power of the Worship Service

Parents are to be the primary disciple-makers of their children (Deut. 6:4-9; Ps. 78:5-7; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). The corporate worship service—where God’s word is publicly read, sung, prayed, preached, and seen in the sacraments—is a powerful and formative tool for discipling our children. Part of how kids learn is through observation and imitation. Sitting through a worship service teaches them how to worship by listening to God’s Word read and preached. The content of the prayers, songs, sermon also gives parents an opportunity to teach their children; they can help them follow along, and afterwards ask questions and explain things to them.

 Parents have the great responsibility (and opportunity!) to teach to their children, by their own example, the meaning and value of worship—not just personal but corporate. If we don’t value and prioritize the local church, we shouldn’t be surprised if our kids don’t either.

John Piper explains: “The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish doing that worship, [who] don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know if dad [or mom or grandma] loves being here. The aim is that the children catch the passion for worshiping God by watching mom and dad enjoy God week after week.”

Our kids should want to be in church in part because they see that their parents want to be there. Imagine the cumulative effect on a child who sees his parents praying fervently, confessing their sins, singing joyfully, reading the Word reverently, listening to the sermon intently, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper week after week, year after year!

Raising Generations Today

Children also benefit from being in the presence of Christians of various ages because they are able to see that the faith of their parents is not a faith that they own alone; they see a faith that is important to all of these people who are gathered around them on Sunday morning. Keeping kids in the worship service helps cultivate inter-generational discipleship. When our children see this incredible gathering of people reading the Word, praying, confessing, and singing together it reinforces what mom and dad are modeling and teaching at home. It gives them a taste of the eternal—God’s saints celebrating him together.

One pastor writes: “[They] must see, know, and learn that the singing of the great hymns of the faith, the preaching of the Word, reading of confessions, corporate prayers, etc. is anything but boring. It is the gathered life of the community of faith. It is our weekly rhythm—appointed by God, designed by Him, established for the ages—this is what we want them to know, because we want them to know and worship Him.”

If our children grow up totally separated from the church of their parents and grandparents, in their own “church” which constantly caters to their age, desires, and interests, it shouldn’t surprise us to see these children grow up feeling disconnected from church, bored with church, and ill-equipped to become active members of a church when they are on their own. We want our kids to know that church is for them as well.

Parents, Prepare Your Children for Worship

Much of the success of this change depends on the parents. Despite common objections, there are several things a parent can do to help prepare their children for corporate worship on Sunday Morning. Noël Piper and Jeremy Walker have both written excellent practical suggestions for helping your kids sit through “big church.” These include:

  1. Worship with your family throughout the week. Set aside time during the week to sing, pray, read the Scriptures. Family worship not only helps you disciple your children, but it also helps Sunday morning corporate worship to not be such a shock to their systems.
  2. Start preparing Saturday night. Ensure that your family gets plenty of rest the night before in order to have enough time Sunday morning to prepare and arrive on time for church.
  3. Arrive early enough to get drinks, use the bathroom, and accomplish other tasks before the service. This can help to limit the amount of trips in and out of the sanctuary.
  4. Worship with your children. Encourage them to read along, sing along, take notes, listen carefully. Helping them learn at a young age to listen well, sit still, and pay attention will serve them far beyond two hours on a Sunday morning.
  5. If necessary, provide them with “quiet” activities, such as crayons or pencils for drawing or coloring. Our church makes these items available for parents to borrow, along with a kid-friendly paper designed for taking notes throughout the service.

Let the Children Come

The most common objection, of course, is: “They won’t understand the sermon! It’ll be over their heads!” But listen to how Piper excellently responds to this sentiment: “Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head! They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day—that they don’t understand 90% of—in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children understand fully what is going on in worship and what is sung and what is said, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of what is valuable.”

This transition hasn’t been an easy one for our families. It has taken much work and patience. But we strongly believe that the long-term benefits outweigh the additional noise and fidgeting. Children are a blessing from God and a gift to the church. Yes, it’s a noisy gift; it’s a squirming and fidgeting gift; it’s a messy gift; but it is a beautiful gift. Children are serve as a visual reminder of those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Our Lord welcomed them with open arms, and we should do likewise.

Learning Leads to Living

This week I want to share with you an excerpt that I read from my wife’s, Rachel Noble’s blog. I hope it encourages you as much as it encourages me:
It’s funny how Paul begins most of his letters with such rich theology and then only after he has displayed these sometimes difficult theological topics, that he then says “therefore – live this way.”  I think this pattern teaches us that LEARNING is what is suppose to LEAD us to Godly LIVING.

Every Christian is a student of God’s Word.  Some are good students and some are bad students.  But we are all called to study God, read God’s Word, know God, deal with the difficult passages about God, so that we truly get to know Him.  Not doing so, is sin for the Christian.

Without knowing God, our moral efforts mean nothing.  God is not pleased with piousness that doesn’t reflect the gospel.  Just look at the Pharisees.  They were pious, “moral,” and they followed the rules etc.  But to what end?  Without the redeeming love of Jesus as reflected in the gospel, our works mean nothing.

Good morals are the overflow of our relational knowledge of God.  Being told to obey God or “follow rules” is not what makes people follow rules, knowing God’s Word is what produces obedience to God.  Good works should be spilling out of us if we continually learning about Him.  We are to love God with all of our MIND (Luke 10:27).  Not just our emotions or affections are involved in loving Jesus, but our minds as well.  God gave us minds so that we can use them to think about Him, to learn about Him, to grow in our knowledge of Him.

What makes us want to obey God?  What fuels a desire to follow Jesus?  Knowing Him!  Growing up in church and getting formal Biblical training through going to Bible college has made me realize that the more I learn about Jesus, the Bible, and theology the more I want to follow Him.  The more in depth I know His Word and learn about Him, the more it pushes me to live for Him.

I’ve heard it said that we are to try to live a moral life that pleases God, then once we master that, if we have time, we can study theology.  This could not be further from the truth!  In fact, the opposite is true.

Learning theology leads to Godly living.
Learning about the cross leads to Godly living.
Learning about the Levitical system leads to Godly living.
Learning about the life of Paul leads to Godly living.
Learning God’s Word leads to Godly living.
Learning about the miracles of Jesus leads to Godly living.
Learning about the book of Amos leads to Godly living.

No matter what book of the Bible I read, no matter what theological topic I study, learning and studying it stirs in me a longing for God and a desire to spread the gospel.

Life is about the gospel and living  it out is what happens when you truly study theology.  If you are struggling to “do the things you want” and not do the “things you hate” (Romans 7:15-16) then these are the things that have helped me:

1.)  Study God’s Word – don’t just read it, study it.  Use commentaries, lexicons, etc.  Actually study it as if you were in Bible college.  🙂

2.)  Read Theology Books – Piper, Sproul, MacAurthur, Chan, Platt, Grudem, Carson, Chandler (and so many others)
3.)  Engage in Church – don’t just sit in the pew then go home.  Talk with your fellow believers and pastors.  Engage in real relationships with them.  They will teach you.  

Live for Jesus – it’s the only way to truly live.

Where We are Going….

The purpose for our annual Publican’s conference is to instruct and encourage the local church through the preaching of the Word, by members of the Publicans, on a particular biblical idea for the advancement of the Gospel and the edification of the body.

Last year we began a three-year endeavor to introduce and encourage the church to understand who God is in a manner that reflects the truth of scripture, and from that understanding of the truth we worship Him rightly and live for Him in all aspects of our lives.

Orthodoxy (2018)

In 2018 we began this task by looking at the historic faith found in the Apostle’s creed. Now we want to be clear here the Apostles creed is not canon, but within it we see the simplification of orthodox doctrine, and as such it is a good tool to direct us along the road we see in the scriptures. Therefore, each of our speakers dissected a different aspect of the creed and unpacked its truth as we saw it in the scriptures. We saw the truth of the Trinity and at the same time their distinctness. We saw the truth of the work of Christ in forgiving our sins and the need for the body of Christ. We saw all this and more flow from the truth of scripture and inform our understanding of the faith, and as such we built a our understand about God and faith on the foundation of Scripture.

It is of utmost importance that we begin our journey here, for the next two years must flow from a proper foundation. You cannot build a home without the foundation, so too you cannot build true worship or a Christian life apart from a biblical orthodox foundation. We must find our full satisfaction in the work of Christ and seek to know Him more as he has revealed himself in Scripture. We do not determine for ourselves what we want God to be, He has revealed himself to us, and as such we are blessed with the opportunity to know Him truly and from that knowledge, we will see the opportunity to worship and live for Him.

Doxology (2019)

Which leads us to this years topic: Doxology

It is vitally important that we see Doxology not as a once a week part of a gathered service but as an overflow of our life with God. So, while the words are sung, they must come from a place of understanding who God is and what He has done. When we come to the Word of God it should leave us in prayer and praise to our Lord. When we hear His Word, we come with an expectation to know Him more and from that knowledge flows Doxology.

Therefore, when we think of worship, we think of singing and in scripture we immediately are drawn to the Psalter. However, the truth is, song and verbal worship is seen throughout the scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, and in each genre, we come face to face with not only the content of the words sung to God, but the posture and circumstances that surround that worship. Through seven different pastors we will discuss several specific ways worship is seen in the text of Scripture. Here we will examine the truth of God’s revelation and how that moves us to song, and the proclamation of His Glory.

Orthopraxy (2020)

Lord willing, this will all culminate next year as we then discuss the words of Peter in 2 Peter 3:11 “What sort of people we out to be in lives of holiness and godliness” This one small verse lies at the heart of Orthopraxy, right living. We are not only called to know God and praise Him; we are called to live rightly before Him. Therefore, we will endeavor to unpack the truth of what it means to live well before our God in pursuit of Him. We will seek to unpack the biblical ideas found in spiritual discipline and how these things are not to be confused with legalistic practices. We will seek through the Word to reveal and encourage believers to live well in lives of faith repentance and hope before our God.

We pray these conferences will continue to be a blessing to the local church and to all who join us each year to be encouraged and instructed in the Word of God. We are thankful for all the Pastors who make it a priority to preach here each year. This year our speakers will be from four different local churches along with our good friend from Mississippi, and our morning round table discussion will feature an additional set of ministers from local congregations and mission agencies.

More Info can be found in the Conference tab and our Facebook page.

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.