Friday, July 20, 2007

On vacation

I wanted to let you know that I'll be on vacation with my family, starting tomorrow until the first full week of August. We go to western North Carolina each year; this year we'll be in Brevard. We'll also be at Ridge Haven for Covenant Seminary's Family Camp with my colleague, Donald Guthrie, the week of July 30. Please be sure to check back next month...

Edwards on the only true happiness

Quoted in John Piper, Supremacy of God in Preaching, 109:

The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer Reading 2007, No. 5

I finished The Supremacy of God in Preaching by John Piper last night. [For those of you who are wondering, some of the books I've finished were half-read and sitting on my bedside table, waiting for me to return. This is one of them.] I read this as part of my preparation for an essay I'm working on ("'Divine Light, Holy Heat': Jonathan Edwards, the Ministry of the Word, and Religious Affections").

I found this book particularly useful for that task; of course, the basic point that Piper makes--that preachers must delight in God as their supreme passion in order to preach in a way that moves others to delight in God--can be substantiated through Edwards' own writing. While his final chapter makes the case explicitly, I think we have an even better handle on this theme now than when the book was first written in 1993 because of the Yale edition of Edwards' works and the Yale online Jonathan Edwards Center manuscript project. I'm hoping to make this case in some detail for the paper.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Summer Reading 2007, no. 4

I finished Nate Larkin's Samson and the Pirate Monks last night. Funny story, first. I bought this book over the weekend in Owensboro, Kentucky, where I was preaching. After I bought it, I went to the Cracker Barrell next to the bookstore for dinner. The girl who was serving me was super friendly (as everyone in Owensboro was--my goodness, turn it down a few notches, people! I'm as southern as the next guy, but it was almost too much); anyway, as she is clearing my plates, she said, "Oh, I love to read! Is that book about pirates?" I said, "Well, not exactly. It is a book about ministering to men." Going on to explain, I said, "I'm a minister and this book caught my eye. But it is probably not something you'd want to read." She wasn't to be detered: "Oh, I love pirates. I'll have to remember that book." Whatever.

I think my waitress would be a little surprised by the content, but those who wrestle with patterns of sin themselves or minister to those who do will find nothing surprising. The first part of the book details Larkin's own story--preacher kid who goes to Princeton Seminary and pastors a church only to leave the ministry voluntarily because of struggles with sexual sin. The pathway out of destructive behavior was largely the power of authenicity within the context of an AA-styled ministry to sex addicts. Out of his own dealing with these issues, Larkin helped to start the Samson Society, a means for bringing men together in a Christianized AA setting to talk about their feelings and struggles with sin.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Summer Reading 2007, no. 3

I finished reading Praying at Burger King by Richard Mouw. This was not exactly what I expected; I had conceived (somehow) that it was a similar book to Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. Instead, it was a collection of short, pithy, three page editorials on a wide-range of subjects; it took me two "sittings" to complete (actually, I read it in bed before I went to sleep).

Still, the little book (134 pages) represents what I so appreciate about Mouw--his open-eyed view of the world; his love for Jesus that shines through every description; his willingness to consider opposing ideas with respect (even when he disagrees). To me, he represents a wonderful model of Christian piety, especially in a thoughtful scholar. All too often, academics spend their time sharpening their swords on others foibles and follies; not Mouw. Instead, he reminds me of the One who said, "I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

CT on justification by faith alone...

...and why it is still the doctrine on which the church stands and falls. [Uh, "CT" would be Christainity Today, not Carl Trueman. Although it is easy to get confused...]

[HT: Justin Taylor]

Friday, July 13, 2007

Summer Reading 2007, no. 2

Brief update...I finished Elisabeth Elliot's Shadow of the Almigthy. I first read this book in college and was deeply impacted by it; I longed to be on fire for Christ in the same way Jim Elliot was. When I came to the Reformed faith and especially as I was attending Reformed Baptist churches, I tended to see Jim's faith as more "hothouse" and "unstable"; I was very worried about my emotions then and probably confused Christian spirituality with a Lucas-devised form of Christian stoicism. Whatever the cause, I distanced myself from his type of longings for Christ.

Now, I find myself coming a bit full cycle--I once again long to have a similar type of devotion for Christ while recognizing the "idealism" of Jim's devotion. Still, it is that idealism and hope and joy in Christ that led Jim to the jungles of Ecuador to share the Gospel with those who had never heard, with those who were likely to (and did) kill him. And that is what I long for--such a joy in God through Christ by the Spirit that I will not fear to risk myself completely for God's Will, knowing that he is no fool to give what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Piper on the Marks of a Spiritual Leader

John Piper has an excellent essay on "the marks of a spiritual leader." He divides the topic into two sections: "the inner circle of spiritual leadership," that which makes leadership spiritual, and "the outer circle of spiritual leadership," that which makes spiritual people leaders. There is a great deal of wisdom here--his 22 (!) points were:

Inner circle of spiritual leadership
1. Has as his goal that others will glorify God
2. Loves both friend and foe by trusting in God and hoping in his promises
3. Meditates on and prays over God's Word
4. Acknowledges his helplessness to God (there was a great quote at this point: "All true spiritual leadership has its roots in deseparation").

Outer circle of spiritual leadership
1. Restlessness
2. Optimistic
3. Intense
4. Self-controlled
5. Think-skinned ("we will feel the criticism, but we will not be incapcitated by it")
6. Energetic
7. A hard thinker
8. Articulate
9. Able to teach
10. A good judge of character
11. Tactful ("Tact is that quality of grace that wins the confidence of people who are sure you won't do or say something stupid")
12. Theologically oriented
13. A dreamer ("The spirit of venturesomeness is at a premium today. Oh, how we need people who will devote just five minutes a week to dream of what might possibly be")
14. Organized and efficient
15. Decisive
16. Perseverant
17. A lover (of your spouse)
18. Restful

Thursday, July 12, 2007

What do men think about?

Actually, that was a line from a Jeff Foxworthy sketch; I just used it to get your attention--because the question is really what do Protestants and Catholics think about (which, in the case that these folks are humans and often males, doesn't make the title line that far off).

Richard Mouw can help us here, I think: "Where evangelicals think soteriology, Catholics tend to think ecclesiology—and so we proceed to talk past each other." I think this is right; although it might be even better (and closer) to say this--where evangelicals think about salvation coming individuals which leads them to the church, Catholics tend to think about individuals coming to the church and through the church experience salvation.

If I am close here, then it is an interesting observation for several reasons. One is Benedict XVI's recent reaffirmation of the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church. In the press, it was widely reported as a blow to ecumenical dialogue; German Lutherans and Anglicans from various countries wondered aloud where it left both their churches and their ecumenical dialogues with Rome. And yet, read in the light of Mouw's observation, the stress on the primacy of Rome makes sense--after all, to be in union with Rome (the "one" holy catholic and apostolic church as measured by its lineage back to the apostles through ordination) is to be in the place of salvation as distributed through its sacraments. If the Pope is a true shepherd, then he should want all men and women to be united to the Catholic church because that is the place of salvation.

But this observation is even more important when thinking about various moves within evangelical Protestantism that "tend to think ecclesiology." One example would be the New Perspective on Paul and especially N. T. Wright's reading of justification as more about ecclesiology, than soteriology. Another example would be the heightened interest on the part of Gen X-ers in ecclesiology, especially "communion ecclesiology," the role of the sacraments, and the importance of liturgical action for forming believers. A third example would be the renewed interest in the 19th century "Mercersburg Theology" and especially John Williamson Nevin, who--if D. G. Hart is correct--made his most important contribution in stressing that the church as the mediator of grace.

Regardless of what one thinks about these various interests, I think Mouw's observation makes it far more understandable why, when confronted by Wright or stress on the efficacy of the sacraments, evangelicals say, "That feels/sounds 'Catholic.'" They aren't simply being closed-minded modernists or southern Presbyterians or revivialistic fundamentalists or whatever pejorative. Rather, they recognize that this is a different, more "Roman Catholic" way of thinking about the relationship between salvation and church, soteriology and ecclesiology: "where evangelicals think soteriology, Catholics tend to think ecclesiology."

What makes this all a bit tricky for Presbyterians is that, confessionally, we try to straddle the fence a bit. After all, our Confession tells us that "outside of which [i.e. the visible church] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (WCF 25:2). As a result, Presbyterians tend to want to think about salvation and church all together at the same time as much as possible. We have a higher view of the sacraments than most evangelicals; we stress the importance of the church's life for the saints' perseverance; and we focus on the communion of saints (and give a whole chapter to the theme in our confessional standards).

Yet the challenge comes from the fact that our default mode is more evangelical than "Catholic"; if the stress falls anywhere for most of us, it is on individual salvation and heart-religion--because if our people do not have a vital relationship with Jesus, then the church is not the body of Christ, but at the best a social club or a religiously-oriented branch of the United Way, and at the worst a "synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9). Perhaps that is why our current dialogues have proved so challenging and made it so difficult to hear each other; exegeting charitably and sensitively not simply the Word and the present day culture, but also Presbyterians' default presuppositions has not been a strong suit.

In other words, asking the question, "What do men think about?" might actually help us in our quest to understand each other as well as other religionists across the Protestant-Catholic divide.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The ESV Marches On

Encouraging news about the English Standard Version and its growth and usefulness. This is the Bible that I use for my own daily worship and memorization and I prefer it for preaching and teaching.

It is important to remember that, unlike many other publishing houses, Crossway is a non-profit organization; by charter, they must plow their "profits" back into their organization. And so, the expanded use of the ESV doesn't make stockholders wealthy; rather, it supports this publishing organization in their publishing of important theological books that might not otherwise be published as well as countless evangelistic tracks (through the Good News division) that typically make little net profit.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Q&A on Baptism

This past Sunday, at our church, I taught through chapter five in On Being Presbyterian and tried to make a strong case for infant baptism. In response, one of our most thoughtful ladies asked a great question that centered on the value of the promises signed and sealed in baptism that don't seem effectual for many, many people. While I tried to make a distinction between "promises" and "guarantees" in my answer, the more I've reflected on the question, the more I wish I could press the rewind button and try again.

Thankfully, another of our most thoughtful ladies emailed me some further questions and reflections on the whole issue. Having another crack at the essential existential question and thinking that my reply might prove useful to others--either who were in that class or who wrestle with this question--I thought I'd post it here.

Hi, ____:

I really appreciate your thoughtful interaction with ____'s comment and my response. As I think I said, this is where the existential issues really come for us; we trust God, we plead his promises for our children, and we wait for him in faith.

As I’ve thought about all this, I wonder if the distinction I tried to make between promises and guarantees is really all that helpful. Perhaps a better way to get at all this is to say: the promise in which the sacrament of baptism confirms our interest is that whoever believes in Jesus shall be saved. Further, parents have warrant to bring their children to be baptized because God promises us that he will be a God to us and our children. Those two promises are related but somewhat different. Let me try to unpack this.

First, baptism confirms our children’s interest in the promise that whoever believes in Jesus shall be saved (Acts 16:31). This is the same promise that is held out to them in the preaching of the Word. And that promise will be held out to them until they die (that was what I was talking about when I said, dv, our children will out-live us and so we don’t know the end of their stories). The value of baptism to the child (among other things) is that, if they were to doubt whether this promise was for them, they (and we) can say, “Yes, that promise is for you—God directed us to have you baptized so that you would have a seal of authentication that the promise is true and for you; your baptism serves as a sign to point you to faith in Jesus, to point you to the Gospel itself.”

Second, we baptize our children because God promises us that he will be a God to us and our children. This may mean that God is a God of grace to our children; he grants them his Spirit and draws them to himself. They are granted faith and they trust in the Savior who promised them in their baptism that whoever believes in Jesus will be saved. But it may be that God will be a God of judgment to our children. Even though he has granted them great mercy by allowing them to grow up among the visible people of God, to know the preaching of his Word, to experience the communion of the saints, they may turn from him, reject his promises, leave the church and never return. Either way, God is a God to our children; he keeps his promises to us, but in different ways.

Perhaps a good parallel to this is in our prayer life. We have precious promises from God that encourage us to pray and to ask him for deliverance from trials and sufferings. And yet, there are times, even when we plead God’s promises faithfully in prayer, that God answers by allowing us to suffer pain and heartbreak. Was God unfaithful to his promises? No—rather, he keeps his promises to us in different ways: in this instance, by leading us into the valley of the shadow of death so that we might be comforted by his rod and staff (an example of this might be 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Circling back around, I would say that when we trust God to keep his promises for our children, we pray that God will be a God to them and that God will be a God of mercy and salvation for them. We pray for them, just as we would pray for others who need Jesus, that God would open their eyes of faith, turn their hearts to him, and grant them grace to follow him all the days of their lives. We pray that God would allow them to truly “improve their baptisms,” to cling to the promise of salvation signed and sealed in their baptisms. And we parent in such a way that keeps God’s Word and promises of salvation to those who believe in front of them. Still, at the end of the day, we must live by faith, trusting the God of grace to do what is right for us and our children. And perhaps God might have other purposes in mind; he is still a God to our children, but shows himself to them and us as a God of judgment.

I’ve attached to this email a short baptismal homily I gave when our Benjamin was baptized in 2004. In particular, I was trying to answer the questions, on what basis do we baptize? And what do we expect to happen in this baptism? It might prove useful in answering some of practical, existential questions with which you are wrestling.

Thanks again for your thoughtful questions—I love the opportunity to explain and clarify things I say, so don’t hesitate to ask! Hope you all have a good time away…


News Flash: Pope affirms Roman Catholicism

I think the above title reflects well recent movements from Benedict XVI who has been spending his theological captial "correcting" the "mistakes" of Vatican II. According to this press release, he apparently has claimed that "Orthodox churches are defective and other Christian churches are not true churches." Boy, shocking--on the order of dog bites man. As Benedict goes on to explain in the article, "Christ 'established here on earth' only one church," the document said. The other communities "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense" because they do not have apostolic succession — the ability to trace their bishops back to Christ's original apostles.

And this remains one of the fundamental challenges that the Roman Catholic Church still presents to Protestantism--how is it possible to affirm "one holy catholic and apostolic church" when Protestantism is broken into hundreds of denominations? For Roman Catholics, the only way to preserve unity is to point to apostolic succession, a line of ordination that goes back to the apostles. For Protestants, the means for unity is also apostolic succession, but it is a succession of commitment to the apostolic message and mission (Ephesians 2:11-22; Matthew 28:16-20). As the authority of Word and Spirit continues to be observed in Protestant churches, we manifest the unity of Christ's church even in the midst of our denominational groupings.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Summer Reading 2007, No. 1

John Piper, Future Grace

Current devotional book:
John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (finished first two sections; plugging away at about 10 pages a day)

Bedside table:
Complete English Poems of George Herbert
Letters of John Newton
Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty (reading this one, dipping in the others)

Other stuff:
John Piper and Justin Taylor, eds., Sex and the Supremacy of God
Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety, and a lot of Jonathan Edwards sermons (for an essay on Jonathan Edwards, the ministry of the Word, and religious affections, which I'm giving at ETS this year)

Taking on vacation in two weeks:
Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality
Sidney Lanier, A Boy's King Arthur
E. O. Guerrant, The Galax Gatherers (about 3/4 through, but seems right to finish this in western NC, where we vacation each year; someday, I want to write a book on Guerrant)

Started and set aside:
C. J. Mahaney, Living the Cross-Centered Life (songs better than book)
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (my wife finished it; I got about 200 pages in and gave up. It made me want to read about the Cherokee Nation, though).

Just ordered from Amazon:
Richard Mouw, Praying at Burger King (love everything Mouw writes; I wish I could be as gentle and generous and gracious as he is)
Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, a Reader

Friday, July 06, 2007

Graduation Benediction 2007

This is a little late; I meant to post it earlier. But this was the benediction I gave at Covenant Seminary's baccalaureate service on May 17, 2007; it was drawn from Ephesians 2:11-22:

Class of 2007, friends, families, loved ones: as you go from this place into the world to serve Christ our King, receive this good word from our God--
May our God grant you to have such a sight of Christ--
who is our peace and
who is making peace for
those who are far off and
those who are near---
that you will be compelled to love
the broken and the proud
the weak and the strong
the unlovely and the beautiful
as those who make up God's glorious, Holy Spirit-built temple, the Church,
of which Christ is the Cornerstone.
May God grant you this, now and forever! Go in his peace, Amen.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Piper on why we should read Christian biography

From Desiring God:

Thanksgiving for the Lives of Flawed Saints
By John Piper

God ordains that we gaze on his glory, dimly mirrored in the ministry of his flawed servants. He intends for us to consider their lives and peer through the imperfections of their faith and behold the beauty of their God. "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7 RSV).

The God who fashions the hearts of all men (Psalm 33:15) means for their lives to display his truth and his worth. From Phoebe to St. Francis, the divine plan--even spoken of the pagan Pharaoh--holds firm for all: "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth" (Romans 9:17 RSV). From David, the king, to David Brainerd, the missionary, extraordinary and incomplete specimens of godliness and wisdom have kindled the worship of sovereign grace in the hearts of reminiscing saints. "This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord" (Psalm 102:18 NASB).

The history of the world is a field strewn with broken stones, which are sacred altars designed to waken worship in the hearts of those who will take the time to read and remember. "I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old. I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds. Your way, O God, is holy; what god is great like our God?" (Psalm 77:11-13 NASB).

The aim of providence in the history of the world is the worship of the people of God. Ten thousand stories of grace and truth are meant to be remembered for the refinement of faith and the sustaining of hope and the guidance of love. "Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4 RSV). Those who nurture their hope in the history of grace will live their lives to the glory of God.

The lives of our flawed Christian heroes are inspiring for two reasons: because they were flawed (like us) and because they were great (unlike us). Their flaws give us hope that maybe God could use us too. Their greatness inspires us to venture beyond the ordinary.

How does it come about that an ordinary person breaks out of the ruts of humdrum life to do something remarkable? It usually happens because of the inspiration of a man or woman they admire.

Do you have any heroes? Do you read about the lives of men and women who broke out of the mold and escaped the trap of the ordinary? Why not make a resolution now for the year 2000? - That you will read a biography. You have six weeks to plan this and choose the book. You can even put it on your Christmas wish list if you start thinking now. If you plan it, it is likely to happen. If you don't, it probably won't.

I am reading John G. Paton: Missionary to the New Hebrides. It has been worth all the hours to have gotten this one paragraph. When he resolved to go to the unreached tribes of the South Sea Islands in 1856, a Christian gentleman objected, "You'll be eaten by cannibals!" To this Paton responded:

Your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my resurrection body will arise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer. (p. 56)

This kind of abandon to the cause of Christ puts fire in my bones. Thank you, Lord, for the lives of flawed and faith-filled saints!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Puritans on "Heart Religion," No. 3

From Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety, 53:

The Puritan's goal in preaching and in producing and using manuals with devotional aids was always to promote the individual practice of piety, which ultimately relied on no printed work save the Bible. The entire pastoral work of the clergy, and the most basic thrust of the Puritan movement iself, were aimed at the spiritual regeneeration of sinners through the means of worship and devotional activity. Personal religious experience was at the heart of Puritanism. Everything in church and state was intended to serve this primary end. And this end, in turn, was the means of establishing the new order, which was the vanguard of God's Kingdom itself.

The Puritans on "Heart Religion," No. 2

From Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Puritan Piety, 48-9:

Puritan iconoclasm stemmed from its deeper mythoclasm. The Puritan vanguard was dedicated to the destruction of an entire world view, a whole system of values and meaning woven from Roman liturgical forms and pagan religious traditions in their English manifestations. The clearest illustration of this "purification" process was the Puritan renunciation of the ecclesiastical year, ordered according to saint's days and local agricultural legends, a renunciation that one scholar referred to as "Puritan calendary iconoclasm." Economic and social as well as religious reasons motivated the shift to a weekly Sabbath and attack on the paganism of the maypole and the sports of holy days and Sabbaths. The result, however, was a major devotional disjunction with the Roman system of special days, which had been carried into the practice of the Church of England. Not a single saint's day survived the voyage to New England. Entirely new temporal patterns and rhythms emerged as Puritan spirituality developed and matured.

The Puritans on "Heart Religion," No. 1

From Charles Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Disciplines in Seventeenth-Century New England (University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 43:

The Puritan mind perceived a fundamental distinction between religion that affirmed the primacy of piety and experience and relation that emphasized established liturgical forms. Liturgical worship that treated form as paramount would stifle experience, resulting in the loss of "the power of godliness." The biblical reference of [Thomas] Hooker's phrase "the better part, heart religion." In Luke 10:38-42 Jesus looked favorably on Mary's posture of devotional rather than Martha's busy activity...Mary and Martha have always been interpreted as classic types of the contemplative and active life, respectively. Hooker now identified the busy show of activity in the liturgy with Martha and the devotional life of "heart religion" with Mary.

The decadence of church and society could not be separated from the official liturgy. Thomas Shepard insisted that even though many of the prayers included in "the Popish Formes of Masse, Matten, and Evensong, etc." were inoffensive, the godly should still "refuse the whole Forme." The Book of Common Prayer, "this corrupt Service-booke," he wrote, has "stunk above the ground twice 40 yeeres, in the nostrills of many godly, who breathed in the pure ayre of the holy Scriptures." Liturgical worship was nothing more than empty ritual, a routine made up of external gestures without deep inner commitment. By contrast, simplified worship that used the words of Scripture for its content promoted "heart religion." The Puritan form of worship gave the worshiper the sense of going directly to the true Source, of finding God in His own Word and rooting all words of sermon and prayer in the Word itself.

J. I. Packer on penal substitutionary atonement...

...posted via Derek Thomas at Reformation21.

Monday, July 02, 2007

I wish I could be like... good friend, Steve Nichols, professor of Bible and Theology at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School. He is an amazingly prolific writer and has had several books either published or about to be published : The Reformation (Crossway, 2007); For Us and Our Salvation (Crossway, 2007); and Jesus Made in America (IVP, 2008). Buy his books, feed his children.