29 September 2014

An Ocean of Negative Scrutiny

How wonderful it is to come every Sunday into a liberating church! All week long we swim in an ocean of judgment and negative scrutiny. We constantly have to comply with the demands of a touchy world, and we never measure up. . . .

Then on Sunday we walk into a new kind of community where we discover an environment of grace in Christ alone. It is so refreshing. Sinners like us can breathe again! It’s as if God simply changes everyone’s topic of conversation from what’s wrong with us, which is plenty, to what’s right with Christ, which is endless. He replaces our negativity, finger-pointing, and self-attack with the good news of his grace for the undeserving. Who couldn’t come alive in a community which inhales that heavenly atmosphere?

Here is where every one of us can happily take our stand right now: “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Our self-focus was crucified with Christ. The need to conceal failure and display false superiority no longer lives. Christ is enough to complete every one of us, without adding anything of ourselves.

As we humbly keep in step with the truth of this gospel, people will find a new kind of community in our churches where sinners and sufferers can thrive.
--Ray Ortlund, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Crossway, 2014), 90-91

25 September 2014

You Must Die

William Still was pastor of Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen for over 50 years and was a friend and mentor to many who spent time studying in Scotland, such as Phil Ryken, Sinclair Ferguson, and my own dad. Rev. Still died in 1997, just a few months after leaving the pulpit.

Toward the end of his book The Work of the Pastor he lists five crucial "touchstones" for those who believe they are called to pastoral ministry. Four of them are: (1) know Christ at a deep personal level; (2) be sure of your call; (3) be patient and wait for the right timing and appointment in God's own good time; and (4) don't do it alone but rather be sure you are prayed into your place by other Christians.

The fifth is, to me, the most arresting, and I suspect the most needed today by a rising generation of young men wondering if they should enter the ministry. But while it applies uniquely to pastors, I believe what William Still says applies to all believers, and must be heard by us all. You don't find this in today's leadership books, even those by evangelical leaders.

Here are his words:
Fifthly--and most important of all--in your personal, intimate, up-to-date knowledge of Christ, secure in His calling, anchored, rooted to your right place, you must in fact die at the stake to all you are in yourself, bad and good.

Do not forget that while Jesus died with all our badness to take it away, He had to die to all the good He could have been and could have done in a long earthly life, in order that He might die with our badness. It is this, I am sure, that most, even perhaps the best-equipped ministers, find themselves not brave enough to rise to, or rather to get down to. We must die a total death to self. . . . We are to hand ourselves over to God like a defeated soldier surrendering arms--a living sacrifice. Far harder to live for Him a living death than to die for Him a death which is an escape or exodus.

If you ask why I rub this in, and make it seem so painfully hard, I answer, because I cannot make it sound too hard. It is far worse to do than you may have dreamed of. Many young ministers have come to me a year or two after they have been out in the ministry, having sought to put what they have learned into practice, and they have had a new respect for the hard things they were taught. This is a radical business. It is literally (no metaphor) a matter of life and death.

Let us put it in electrical terms. You have to die a total death to self to let the current of God's power through to others. . . . I know to my very great, sore, deadly, heartbreaking, agonizing cost, that the Word will never come through someone living. That person must be dead. (If you knew what deaths I have had to die to be here at all!) In fact, if we are not one hundred percent "with it," that is, with God in what He is doing through us, we are beating the air, wasting our breath, working for mere wages, with no product whatsoever for our pains. 
--William Still, The Work of the Pastor (Fearn, Scot.: Christian Focus, 2010), 121-23

22 September 2014

Really Our Own

The heart is so deceitful that it becomes us to examine ourselves with all carefulness, lest at the end of life we shall find that whilst we appeared to be doing God’s work, we were really doing our own; and that whilst our friends gave us credit for great religious devotion, we were really borne along by a vain, proud, and unworthy purpose, which robbed out noblest service of all value in the sight of eternity. 
--F. B. Meyer, The Directory of the Devout Life (1904), 151

16 September 2014

A Gentle, Kind Learner

Jack Miller, 1996, a few months before his death, in a letter to a man preparing to plant a church--
I am so much this way--the aggressive personality--that for a long time I questioned whether I could function as a pastor, whether I would not overwhelm people with my personality. Enthusiasm was not just my middle name: it was my first, middle, and last names. Eventually the Holy Spirit began to tame my spirit, and out of these changes I discerned that pastoral ministry was actually much easier than I thought. Basically at the beginning of a ministry, the leader should humble himself and not try to do too much. Really, even later a good pastor is pretty much a good listener, a patient, deliberate questioner; and at the beginning of a church-planting enterprise you will be astonished how well things will go if you are just a gentle, kind learner.

My own conviction is that the flesh is still so strong in the Christian leader that each of us needs a healthy fear of our own capacity for ruining the work of God with our unconscious pride.
--The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller (P&R, 2004), 86; emphasis original

14 September 2014

How Can a Preacher of Radical Grace Be Radically Self-Centered?

Though the attempt to claim justification without a clear commitment to sanctification outrages our conscience, we usually repress this from conscious awareness, and the resulting anxiety and insecurity create compulsive egocentric drives which aggravate the flesh instead of mortifying it. Thus the Protestant disease of cheap grace can produce some of the most selfish and contentious leaders and lay people on earth, more difficult to bear in a state of grace than they would be in a state of nature. 
--Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Eerdmans, 1979), 103-4

08 September 2014

What a Pastor Does

It is to feed sheep on the truth that men are called to churches and congregations, whatever they may think they are called to do.

If you think that you are called to keep a largely worldly organisation, miscalled a church, going, with infinitesimal doses of innocuous sub-Christian drugs or stimulants, then the only help I can give you is to advise you to give up the hope of the ministry and go and be a street scavenger; a far healthier and more godly job, keeping the streets tidy, than cluttering the church with a lot of worldly claptrap in the delusion that you are doing a job for God.

The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed. He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats. Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it out in goatland.
William Still, The Work of the Pastor (rev. ed.; Christian Focus, 2010), 23

31 August 2014

Alive to Beauty

Today my book Edwards on the Christian Life releases. How good of Steve Nichols and Justin Taylor to invite me into their Theologians on the Christian Life series. And George Marsden was kind enough to write a foreword. What grace!

I am happy about this book.

Why? What's it trying to do? After all, we have no shortage of books available to us these days. Billions of words clamor for our attention, in dozens of various print and digital formats. Why put in the time to write this one?

Well, what I'm not trying to do is set the record straight on any of the various intra-Edwardsian-scholarship discussions.

Nor am I telling the story of Edwards' own life.

Nor rehashing and synthesizing what others have said about Edwards.

Nor addressing his theology as a whole.

Nor doing mainly a historical/cultural/backgrounds study.

What's it for then?

I am trying to give readers a taste of what Edwards has given me. Something like pulling the shades up on a bright Spring morning to let the light stream in after waking from a nightmare. Or stepping into an air conditioned home on a hot, humid day. Or walking through the tunnel into the open air of an enormous football stadium and trying to take in what you're looking at.

It's a book that takes one specific aspect of Edwards' overall theology and vision of the universe--everyday living of the Christian life--and then tries, in explaining it, to create space for that to come alive in the lives of the book's readers. It's for tired Christians who on the one hand have tasted the sweetness of the Christian life but on the other hand find this sweetness constantly getting fizzled out through boredom, weakness, failure, loneliness, disappointment, weariness. It's for Christians like me.

There is simply no one like Jonathan Edwards when it comes to telling us of the Christian life. The sweetness, the blanketing shalom, the sun-like nature of it. The loveliness of walking through life with Christ as our beautiful, and beauty-nurturing, Friend. "There is a brightness and a glory in the Christian life," wrote Edwards. There was in his. I want there to be in ours. That's why I wrote.

Jonathan Edwards has left us such help in living the Christian life. If you long to live out of a stable calm and nobility that is beyond the reach of circumstance, weather, and finances, I hope you will consider picking up a copy. Above all, I hope you'll find yourself a tiny bit more radiant on the other side.

*This blog post and this brief online article will give you a flavor of the book. Neither is extracting content from the book, but both get at the heart of what I'm trying to say in it.

29 August 2014

O Give Me That Book

John Wesley:
I want to know one thing--the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way. . . . He hath written it down in a book! O give me that book! At any price, give me the Book of God!

I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. . . . I sit down alone: only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. . . . I meditate thereon, with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable.
--John Wesley, 'Preface,' in The Works of John Wesley (London: Thomas Cordeux, 1811), 7:4-5 ('homo unius libri' = 'a man of one book')

28 August 2014