Spurgeon called the 3 R’s “three doctrines that must be preached above all else,” and they draw from three different chapters of Scripture that “deal with the things in the fullest manner:” Genesis 3:14-15 (Ruin), Romans 3:21-26 (Redemption), John 3:1-8 (Regeneration). Why do I think it makes a good preaching or evangelism method? Because each of Spurgeon’s three words begin with “R,” making it easy to recall. Each text is also a key chapter 3 in the Bible, making the references easy to remember, especially in the nerve-busting throes of personal, face-to-face evangelism. Spurgeon’s three R’s:Ruin — Genesis 3:14-15
This is what man has done. “How did man get in this miserable condition?” Spurgeon asks. R.C. Sproul frames it another way, and his question is one I get often in Gospel conversations: “Saved from what?” In our post-postmodern culture, even (or perhaps especially) in the Bible Belt, we must begin here. Biblical illiteracy appears to be at an all-time high globally, thus many have ever considered the obvious truth that there is something desperately wrong in our world, though most all agree with its truthfulness.
Beginning here establishes the problem into which God has launched his rescue mission: Man has rebelled against his Maker, has broken his Law, and lives under a curse that will one day experience the white-hot, unmediated wrath of God. But in the second half of verse 15, we hear the faint promise of God’s solution: The seed of the woman will crush the head of the seed of the serpent. The serpent will bruise the heel of the woman’s offspring, but this promised one will deal the death blow to the snake, killing him as only one can a serpent: a smashed head. This leads naturally to the good news of God’s rescue mission.Redemption — Romans 3:21-26
This is what God has done. This is the good news that eclipses the bad news. In the scope of five verses, Paul articulates what some commentators have called the thesis of Romans or the “magna carta” of salvation. In these glorious verses, in a small section of this glorious epistle, Paul establishes: the demands of God’s Law, the futility of works salvation, the Law’s definition of sin, the righteousness of God received by faith in Christ, the reality of justification by faith that is through the redemption of Jesus Christ and His satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin. This paragraph contains the entire matrix of the work of Christ — a work he accomplished on the cross and provided full pardon from the guilt of sin for every sinner who believes. It is perhaps the most glorious paragraph in human history.Regeneration — John 3:1-8
This is what God must do in sinners to enable them to believe. It has the distinction of being perhaps one of the most under-taught doctrines in all of evangelicalism. This is the doctrine of the new birth. Spurgeon, as have Reformed evangelicals through the ages, taught that regeneration precedes faith. In other words, God changes the sinful human heart, sets it free from bondage to sin, and enables it to believe that Jesus is indeed the way, the truth, and the life. Regeneration, like the entire complex of salvation, is a unilateral work of grace.
It was a central theme of Spurgeon’s preaching and evangelism, and it must be foundational to ours as well. The reality of regeneration urges us to call sinners to repentance and faith while we rest in the work of God, who opens blind eyes and unstops deaf ears. It removes the pressure from us and frees us to boldly share the gospel while knowing the results are in the hands of a sovereign, benevolent God. Out of a biblical understanding of regeneration, we may call on sinners to repent and be reconciled to God while leaving the results to him.
We would do well for Spurgeon’s “Three R’s” to serve as a vital bulwark for all our preaching, teaching, and evangelism.
And like Spurgeon, pastors today should make sure these three doctrines find a regular appearance in the diet of biblical exposition for hungry sheep in our congregations.
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He is pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition, and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014) and co-editor with D. A. Carson of Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth (Crossway) and 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway) and 12 Faithful Men (Baker) with Collin Hansen. Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.
Last year, I penned an article entitled “Tips for being a Successful Student.” Here, let’s examine what is THE school supply every Southwestern student MUST have.
I have always loved the start of a new school year. The excitement and expectation of learning new things, the joy of moving “up a grade,” and the new school supplies … ah, those wonderful new school supplies. Backpack; lunch box (yes, the old-school metal ones with cool graphics); notebooks and folders; protractors, compasses, and rulers; pens, pencils (maybe even upgrade to a mechanical pencil!), and erasers; and yes, the all-time favorite, the new box of crayons. I remember when I graduated from 8-count to 16-count to 24-count and, finally, to the holy grail of 64-count! The myriad of colors in the 64-count box and the hope of endless hours of creativity was more than I could stand. The new school year always meant new crayons, and it still does as my wife and I purchase new crayons for our four children. Really, they are for my children and not me … maybe.
As Southwestern begins a new academic year, students are assembling their school supplies. Crayons are fun and useful for relieving stress, but they are not the school supply every student must have. Assigned books and Bible software are required; paper, pens, and highlighters are needful; and an interlinear Greek-Hebrew-English Bible and books on biblical syntax and parts of speech are helpful. Yet, these are not the primary school supply one must have. No, the one supply each student must have is a teachable spirit.
I observe so many students begin the academic year with a preconceived notion of what they will get out of a course, how fast they will go through classes in order to graduate quickly, or enter feeling entitled to A’s for just showing up with a pulse. They don’t take notes in class, don’t take advantage of being mentored by faculty members, don’t participate in campus student life, and take “safe” classes that don’t challenge their existing presuppositions, practices, and prejudices. This is not why students are at Southwestern; rather, students are called to be equipped. Southwestern is a hot crucible where God refines people as they are being equipped for a lifetime of ministry. This cannot happen if one does not possess a teachable spirit.
The book of Proverbs warns against an unteachable spirit:
A fool does not delight in understanding,
But only in revealing his own mind.
…“How I have hated instruction!
And my heart spurned reproof!
I have not listened to the voice of my teachers,
Nor inclined my ear to my instructors!”
Proverbs 15:32 and 19:20 attest that a teachable spirit is a nonnegotiable requirement for wisdom. You must be willing to be pliable,* permitting God to mold and shape you—to equip you. You must be willing to surrender presuppositions and prejudices and, yes, even traditions. Like Jacob, you must be willing to wrestle with God, or like Paul, to let God take your life plans and completely change them. King David was teachable and King Saul was not—the hand of God was on one man, but from the other, His hand was removed. The faculty of Southwestern are God-called men and women who desire to exhaustively pour into students the riches of God’s Word and their own spiritual journeys so as to optimally equip students to be sent out. This can only be accomplished if students possess a teachable spirit.
You see, YOU are the new box of crayons at the beginning of the school year. Your box is full of a myriad of experiences, presuppositions, spiritual gifts, and talents. What will you let God draw, color, and create with you this year? Are you willing to let Him have access to your box—to dull, take the wrapper off, or even break your favorite crayons—and create a new masterpiece?
As you pray for the new academic year, pray Psalm 119:33-36 over yourself:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes,
And I shall observe it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law
And keep it with all my heart.
Make me walk in the path of Your commandments,
For I delight in it.
Incline my heart to Your testimonies
And not to dishonest gain.
*Pliable is different from flexible. Flexibility means your state is altered and then you return to your original state. Pliability means your state is altered and then you remain in the new altered state. We want to be pliable to God.
In the last several years, observers of American church life have noted that the definition of a regular church attendee is changing. With increasing affluence, mobility, commitments, and entertainment options, many Christians gather with their church family less often than they did ten years ago. Previously, a regular church attendee was a person who “only” gathered with their church one time a week. Now a regular attendee is a person who may attend twice a month.
We often don’t think about what happens when we don’t regularly gather with our church. Sure, we may think about what I might miss. “I won’t hear the sermon today, but I can read a book, listen to Christian radio, or catch up on the podcast.” “I love to sing worship music, but I can do that in the car on the way to where I am going today. I don’t have to go to a building to sing praises to Jesus.” We make these excuses to ourselves and use them to justify how I can make up for what I am missing when I miss gathering with the church.See the bigger picture
What if you miss something bigger than missing out on a sermon or singing when you don’t gather with your church body? We have heard the words of Hebrews 10:24-25 often. “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” These Christians faced the temptation to stop meeting together because of the persecution faced, but they could not stop. The writer reminded them of their responsibilities to each other. They must stir up each other to love and good works. The way they accomplish this is by “not neglecting to meet together” and instead regularly meeting to encourage each other. The writer’s logic here is simple and we can’t argue with it– you cannot encourage people you do not see.
You come to an important realization when contemplating the message of these verses. Instead of only thinking about what you miss when you miss gathering with your church family, also think about what others miss because of your absence.
Do you see the difference in perspective here? When only thinking about what you aren’t getting, you view the church with a consumer mentality. The church becomes another place where you receive goods and services. However, when you begin to see the church as a people to whom you belong, your motivation for gathering changes. The main worship gathering, community groups, and having people over for dinner become a means for you to give as well as receive.Missing a limb
You may think people don’t miss much when you aren’t around, but consider the metaphors the Bible uses to describe the church. Paul pictures the church as a body, a temple, and a family. Each of these metaphors stresses the church’s interdependency. If the church is a body and you go AWOL, the body will not function properly. Since the church is a family, when you don’t gather with them there is an empty seat at the table. The church is a temple and you are a brick in it, so the whole structure is weaker and more vulnerable when you are not there.
How many times have you been encouraged by a quick word from another Christian? How often have you shared your burdens with another Christian in a short conversation and discovered they were praying for you a month later? When you first visited the church you currently attend, wasn’t it helpful to see people there you already knew? You have the opportunity to be the same blessing to others.
The Sunday you want to sleep in could be the Sunday one of your neighbors decides to attend and feels more comfortable because he sees someone he knows. The week you gather around the table with other Christians for lunch instead of running home to catch a football game might give you the opportunity to encourage someone who has been suffering in silence. This week, you may get the opportunity to be a strong shoulder for a hurting friend because you gathered with your group instead of scheduling something else.God uses means
God could accomplish all of his purposes without us, but he works through means. The Lord uses our lives to accomplish the spread of his kingdom and to build up his people. His ministry of encouragement takes place through ordinary Christians praying for and helping each other. He often brings comfort to his hurting children not through an angel from heaven, but through the people he redeemed.
In two years, you may not remember the sermon you heard when you gathered with the church this week, but a hurting or discouraged friend will remember the kindness you showed them. Today, begin to see the church as something more significant than a place where you go to get the religious things you need. Start viewing the church as a people to whom you belong and who need you so they can grow into the image of Christ. If you belong to Jesus, he has gifted you to build up his people and his kingdom. Gather with his people this week not only thinking of yourself but also about how you might be God’s means of building up another.
Scott Slayton (M.Div., SBTS) serves as Lead Pastor at Chelsea Village Baptist Church in Chelsea, Alabama. Scott and his wife Beth have four children: Hannah, Sarah Kate, Leah, and Matt. He regularly writes at his personal blog on Patheos.com.
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Church planters as risk takers. They start churches — often with little funding. They typically have no building when they start out, and many have no members. Church planting is inherently risky.
But I would argue that church revitalization must be risky as well. Indeed, I believe church revitalization leaders should be consummate students of risk-taking. Let me offer five reasons why:1. There is no such thing as a status quo church.
Here is the harsh reality of revitalization: Churches are either headed toward greater health or they are declining in health. Many of the declining churches are dying. There are no churches “holding their own” or “hanging in there.” We need risk-taking leaders to lead church revitalization because the alternative is death.2. Churches that need revitalizing must be led by change agents.
That path is risky and change can be painful. Change is often resisted. Change can be three steps forward followed by two steps backwards. But if the revitalization leader does not lead change, the church will not become healthier.3. Leaders of revitalization must be willing to risk their jobs.
Leaders of revitalization know the harsh reality of job insecurity. Thousands and thousands of change leaders have been fired because they upset the status quo or threatened the power group. While leaders should not lead change foolishly, even wise changes could result in their ouster.4. Criticism is constant for risk-taking leaders of revitalization.
Many leaders in these churches revert risk aversion once things get tough. To use a sports metaphor, they play defense instead of offense. Church revitalization leaders must be willing to endure the almost daily doses of criticisms that will come their way.5. Revitalization will take place when a leader points to the discomfort of an untraveled future path rather than remaining in the comfort of a well-worn present.
It takes a leader willing to take risks to look to the future. It is not fully known. It is not the way we’ve always done it. It is downright uncomfortable for most people.
In the past, we often saw the established church as a place where leaders could move so slowly that progress was imperceptible. And that was okay, because the churches of the past offered stability. This is not the case today. Leading a church toward revitalization is risky business. But it is a necessary business. And risk is really the path all leaders should take. There is a word in the Bible that reflects this leadership disposition more clearly. The word is faith.
Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. Rainer received both a master of divinity and Ph.D. from Southern Seminary and was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism from 1994 to 2005. He is the author of many books and served as a pastor for several years.
Gratitude is more complex than a smile on one’s face or a polite, “thank you.” In Growing in Gratitude, Mary Mohler provides a rich theology revealing the deeper roots of gratitude. Many Christians experience a lull in their joy for the things of God years after conversion, and Mohler encourages them to discover anew the deep sense of gratefulness they first felt when they came to faith in Christ. Because in gratitude, God’s honor is at stake.
“Gratitude is a deep theological issue,” she writes. “I am not talking about a ‘count your many blessings, name them one by one’ kind of gratitude to God. I am talking about a deep sense of awe ingrained in our minds. I am talking about an awareness, in every waking moment, of the glorious truth that the God of the universe is infinite in all his perfections. And he loves us.”
From showing the role gratitude played in the Garden of Eden to finding ultimate gratitude in salvation, Mohler uses numerous biblical texts to explain the depth of gratitude Christians should display. Colossians 2 encourages believers to endure in their faith while “abounding in thanksgiving,” which Mohler observes is a continuous overflowing of praise for God’s great work in the lives of his children. Psalm 100 describes the people of God as the “sheep of his pasture” — they belong to the Lord and they are cared for by his gracious provision for them. This necessarily leads to entering “his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise,” Mohler writes.
But when human beings fail to thank God, disaster strikes. The Fall narrative in Genesis 3 pictures two sinless human beings, Adam and Eve, craving more than what God had already graciously provided, leading to ungodly independence and a tragic break of their relationship with their Lord. Similarly, Paul includes the failure to “honor [God] as God or give thanks to him” as one of a long list of reasons God’s wrath is poured out on humanity in Romans 1.
Mohler also explains that gratitude begins in the heart and works outward into actions. The book is filled with practical advice and explains what it looks like to live a life defined by gratitude. Using various historical and popular Christian figures, she provides tangible examples on how gratitude is lived out in a daily walk with God.
“Let’s cultivate the art of writing a note to someone in order to show gratitude and encouragement,” Mohler writes. “If the Lord brings specific people to mind for no apparent reason, a short note written to simply say you thought of them and are thankful for what they mean to you could be used by the Lord in ways we vastly underestimate.”
Gratitude affects multiple facets of the Christian walk including times of both blessing and trials. Distinct to this book, Mohler challenges readers to express gratitude to God for not only for blessings, but also for the “thorns” and difficult trials he allows Christians to face.
Christians can not only thank God for his gifts (a “natural gratitude,” according to Mohler) and thank God for who he is (a “gracious gratitude”), but they can thank him for providing for them in the midst of difficult circumstances. Mohler recommends not only keeping a “blessing journal” — a collection of things God has done for us — but also remembering how the Lord has provided for them during trials. Those trying circumstances can be the means God uses to remind Christians of their care for him.
“No one wishes for a fire — and no one asks for a thorn,” she writes. “But as believers who all have suffering of some kind, as Scripture says we will, we certainly take joy in knowing the Lord is true to his word. We cherish the closeness we feel to our Lord as we bear adversity. He truly is with us on the mountain tops and in the valleys. He is faithful!”
Filled with practical examples of how to live lives of gratitude, this book is an excellent resource to help a Christian develop strategies for gratitude-filled living.
Book Reviews: ‘When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected ‘; ‘All Things Hold Together in Christ’; ‘To Change the Church’; ‘An Introduction to Christian Worldview’
When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected by Paul Maxwell (Amazon Kindle 2018, $2.99)
Review by Sarah Haywood
Twentysomethings experience a decade that is often dark and difficult to navigate, where the expectations of childhood disappear and responsibility arises. The “darkness” of the this stage is real, and in learning to engage it, according to Paul Maxwell, “the best practical theology will uncover the connection between our darkest moments and the person of Christ himself.”
In When Your Twenties Are Darker Than You Expected, Maxwell addresses this “quarter life crisis.” Highlighting the presence of anxiety and depression to loneliness and grief, he encourages readers to learn to read these emotions as signs that point to something else. Maxwell positions each plausible emotional and spiritual struggle next to what God says about them. In the challenge of a quarter life crisis, he says, “[God] embarks with us on this journey that feels lonely and unforgiving and emotionally brutal.”
Maxwell honestly and carefully points to the promises of Scripture and the presence of God in the darkness, reminding readers to pray, “Turn our eyes to what we know, when our heads, our bodies, and our emotions refuse to accept your place in our fears.”
All Things Hold Together in Christ: A Conversation on Faith, Science and Virtue by James K.A. Smith and Michael L. Gulker, eds. (Baker 2018, $29.99)
Review By Aaron Cline Hanbury
A flaw sits at the center of (academic) discussions about faith and science, according to philosopher James K.A. Smith. He writes about this flaw, suggesting that prevailing academic approach to these topics views science as fixed data and theology as flexible.
In an effort to reframe the discussion, he and Michael L. Gulker gathered writings for the new book, All Things Hold Together in Christ: A Conversation on Faith, Science and Virtue.
The guiding principle of the book, which includes essays from theologians such as Timothy George, Stanley Hauerwas, Mark Noll, N. T. Wright, and Alasdair MacIntyre, is Colossians 1:17 (“all things hold together in Christ”), which the contributors apply to the often-antagonistic relationship of science and theology.
To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism by Ross Douthat (Simon & Schuster 2018, $26)
Review by Doug Hanna
In his new book, New York Times columnist and devoted Catholic Ross Douthat offers an insightful look at the last 75 years of the Catholic Church’s history. From that foundation, Douthat places the first five years of Francis’s pontificate in its proper context and begins to imagine the Catholic Church’s trajectory for the next 20 years. To Change the Church is not merely an exposé about how Pope Francis might lead the world’s largest church. It is rather a thorough, but not tedious, introduction to the current controversies of global Catholicism.
As Douthat shows, the future of the Catholic Church is anyone’s game. Pope Francis may lead the church leftward into a liberal faith or might allow the church to idle in an unsure moderate position, creating a leadership vacuum for conservatives to press their own vision forward.
Seminary students will find To Change the Church to be an easy read that provides a realistic and historical foundation for academic and evangelistic engagement of Roman Catholicism.
An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World by Tawa J. Anderson, W. Michael Clark, and David K. Naugle (IVP Academic 2017; $31.50)
Review by Gabriel Reyes-Ordeix
Three friends — John Luther, Charles Dawkins and Shirley Chopra — visit a nature preserve in the African Serengeti, and as they experience the majestic beauty of the African wildlife, each has a different reaction. John Luther says, “The Lord God has created an amazing array of creatures that declare his glory!” Charles Dawkins responds, “An amazing array of creatures, surely. But you err in ascribing their existence to a Creator. They are the result of the guided purposeless random mutation and natural selection.” To this, Shirley Chopra replies, “I pray you would be enlightened to the full reality. These creatures too bear the same spark of divinity that lies within you and me. We are all potential gods and goddesses.” This story guides the rest of the book in illustrating that these three friends experienced the same objective truth, but because of their vastly different perspectives, the three see different things as their worldviews clash.
Anderson, Clark, and Naugle divide An Introduction to Christian Worldview into three sections, the first focusing on a clear and simple definition of worldview; the second is dedicated to Christian worldview; the third closes with the alternatives in Western philosophy and global religions.
Their very helpful definition of worldview as “the conceptual lens through which we see, understand, and interpret the world and our place within it” evidences the clarity, sensibility and directness of this book. The authors often combine elements of popular culture like The Matrix or Star Wars in combination with Greek lexicon and classic philosophical rhetoric to make this book a refreshing, complete introduction to Christian worldview full of application to the Christian life, and to devotional life.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: In her debut book, Mary Mohler, the first lady of Southern Seminary, encourages readers to pursue gratitude and offers strategies for how to grow in it. Towers contributor Annie Corser sat down with Mohler in her home to talk about the book, Growing in Gratitude.
AC: How important is it to know Scripture in order to have a heart of gratitude?
MM: It’s essential. I think that’s where people often get off-track. The reason I wrote the book was because I see a lack of gratitude — a half-hearted: “Sure, I count my blessings every once in a while.” People don’t realize that it is such a deeply theological issue. In Scripture, we’re told so many times to praise the Lord, to be thankful, and in all circumstances not for all circumstances.
We’re supposed to be abounding with thanksgiving, so I take that very seriously. This gratitude is very deeply rooted in the Word. We cultivate gratitude by understanding that it’s so much more than counting our blessings. I learned a great deal about this from the work of the Puritan pastor, Jonathan Edwards. He explained there are two kinds of gratitude — one is primary and the other is secondary. The primary kind, gracious gratitude, shows thankfulness to the Lord for who he is. The secondary kind, natural gratitude, relates to what he has done. When we make it a habit to thank him for who he is in every specific way we can, we come to appreciate his nature in a whole new way. We deepen our gratitude before we ever get to thanking him for what he has done. Further, as we learn to focus on the grace we have in Christ, our thankful hearts spur us on to act like grateful people who respond by building up the church and spreading the gospel. As Colossians 2:6-7 says, “Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
AC: What can hinder a heart of gratitude, and what are ways we can counter that?
MM: First, our gratitude can be diminished as we consider the lostness of our dear friends and loved ones, and we can allow it to consume us. We counter this by being ever more grateful for God’s kindness in saving us as we continue to pray for others — and trust that our sovereign God is indeed at work.
Second, how common is it for us to be so busy — even busy doing kingdom work that gratitude gets pushed aside? We almost act like we will save it for when we are rocking in our rocking chairs in our old age and reminiscing about life. Scripture does not teach that. It is replete with references to praise the Lord and be thankful — this is the day! We are to abound in thanksgiving. No delay for busyness.
Third, sometimes we allow discontent over circumstances to rob us of both joy and gratitude. “If only things were different,” we think. God’s word is so clear: 1 Thessalonians 5 says to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Fourth, doubt and guilt can plague us and hinder gratitude. We lose sight of the truth that we were bought with a price. Scripture teaches us in Jude that “Christ will present us blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.” How can we not overflow with gratitude for that?
AC: How does Scripture help increase our gratitude?
MM: Scripture just affirms it all over the place. As we pray through the Psalms, that can do nothing but increase our gratitude. If people are struggling with gratitude or can’t get their mind around it, that’s a great way to go about it. We get back to Scripture — especially with the idea of “gracious gratitude” that Jonathan Edwards coined. That was revolutionary to me; I knew nothing about that until I started writing the book and started looking into this more. I came to realize that gratitude is about thanking God for who he is, first of all. That’s primary. Then we move onto thanking him for what he’s done. As you pray through the Psalms and pray prayers of Scripture that are found in other places, as well. That’s the best place to be.
AC: You encourage readers to keep a “blessing journal” and a “thorns journal.” Can you explain those?
MM: This sounds counterintuitive, are you really asking us to praise God and be thankful for the difficulties — the thorns — in our lives? It’s much easier to be grateful when things are going well, but we have to work hard to remain grateful when life hurts. It seems almost foolish to thank God when things are hard. But I think that’s biblical too. And we see that lived out in Paul’s life. He asked three times for his thorn to be taken away. It wasn’t. So therefore, the Lord in his sovereignty, has left that in Paul’s life knowing that all of us today would be reading about this and would be saying, “How can that be?” Paul does not obsess on the thorn but presses on in spite of it — and we should too.
A thorns list, which should be a much shorter list I hope, alongside the praise list helps us be able to say, “Lord I didn’t ask for this. I’m not going to act like I’m happy when I’m not, but I want to thank you for this thorn because you put it there for a reason, and I’ll understand that one day. I want you to use it to your glory and I want you to change my heart and change my attitude.”
For example, we can thank the Lord for the resolve that our thorn in the flesh will not be the hallmark of our life. We will boldly accept the good and the bad. We can thank him for choosing us to walk through this particular adversity for a particular reason — even if we won’t know that reason this side of heaven. We can thank him for the lesson we are learning in the process, and for the people we are perhaps unknowingly encouraging and inspiring along the way. We can thank him for not allowing the thorn to overwhelm us — even as we look forward to the certain joy of being free of it one day as we spend eternity with Christ where there will be no more thorns.
The roses on the list start to smell sweeter as you’re thankful for the thorns.
AC: How can we teach children to be genuinely grateful?
MM: The Lord has given parents the sobering responsibly to teach children well. We don’t do so in hopes they will grow up to be good, moral rule keepers. We pray they will grow up to love the Lord and to know how He blesses them with all good things. Wise parents teach their toddlers to simply say thank you. How sweet it is to hear some baby talk form of “thank you” as some of their first words uttered. How easy it can be for children to feel entitled. I have a section in the book that deals with how we must intentionally replace entitlement with gratitude for all the Lord so generously provides. This must be both modeled and taught. You know, as children grow up to adolescence, it will only get worse as they will be bombarded with the sinful notion that they deserve all good things. We know better. We want to point them to Christ who left his throne in glory to come and die for us— and give us life abundant.
AC: How did writing this book make you personally more grateful?
MM: It’s very difficult to admonish women to be more grateful if you have a complaining and negative spirit. So I found myself more than once having to go, “Wait a minute, what are you writing about now? Let’s remember that, and turn this around and find a way to be grateful.” So it’s definitely been a sanctification process — as so many things in life are — that the Lord Jesus uses to grow us and change us to his likeness.
Christian engagement with the dramatic arts is a relatively recent phenomenon that correlated with the introduction of motion pictures and television. For centuries, pastors and theologians gave multiple reasons for the prohibition of the theater — reasons that ranged from idleness and distraction from God, to perceived danger to women for whom plays and romances provide an avenue from which they may take a “romantic disposition of mind,” the abomination of men crossdressing for the stage. Plays also featured crass jokes, lewd comments, and plenty of immoral content, they said.
William Law noted that even if a particular stage production wasn’t lewd, a Christian would be perpetuating and promoting immoral productions by attending. A tract from 1820 cautioned its readers that Christians are on a “world stage,” arguing that aside from the corruption of mind, their witness could be damaged. This concern of damaging witness by theater-going was echoed over 75 years later when E.L. Willis published an account of an actress who quit the stage in the middle of her lines once she saw a Christian lady in the audience and said that she would not return to the stage “as long as that old hypocrite is there.”
Among nineteenth-century Southern Baptists, T.T. Eaton, pastor of Louisville’s Walnut Street Baptist Church (1881-1907), wrote a pamphlet on “The Theatre and Its Influence.” Eaton acquiesced, “Let it be admitted at the outset that the drama is ‘a fine art,’ and, under proper conditions, could be made the means of instruction and edification to the people. Alas! that those conditions have never been fulfilled, and there is no prospect that they ever will be.” Eaton prohibited the patronage of the theater, however, since contemporary plays were wrought with immorality. He noted of Shakespeare’s plays, “The aim of the great master of the drama was not to elevate or reform mankind, but to paint life as it actually existed around him. Since this life was wicked, the picture he drew was, of course, dark.” Eaton also argued that, “The influence of the drama is clearly seen in the increased ease and frequency of divorces and in the many scandals which occupy so large a part of the daily press.”
These same arguments were used into the 1920s for both modern theater and the new moving pictures. The content — language, jokes, themes, and even the actors’ and actresses’ off-screen and off-stage lives — was used as moral oppositions for dramatic entertainment. Speaking of the modern theater and motion pictures, SBTS former student (1902-03) and New York City preacher, John Roach Straton, wrote, “When I see the moral filth upon which they are regaled in the playhouses, I cannot but feel that the theater as it exists today is one of the deadliest menaces to the … good order of our homes and the health of civilized society in its every branch.” In fact, perceptions that moving pictures contributed to rising divorce rates was cited as a specific concern at the 1921 Southern Baptist Convention during which the Social Committee contended, “We must not allow this factor to be devoted to evil; it should be harnessed for harmless amusement, for education and for the Kingdom of God.” This statement, particularly the phrase “harmless amusement,” demonstrates the potential for eventual engagement of secular moving pictures.
The discussion of engagement with dramatic entertainment continued through the decades which culminated in a resolution approved by the 1972 SBC annual meeting titled “On Offensive Movies and Television Programs,” which stated the attendees resolved that:
We endorse movie production and television programming which provide wholesome entertainment and that we vigorously oppose that which undermines the moral values and ideals… we call on Southern Baptists to communicate appreciation to producers, networks, and sponsors for movies and television programs that are morally wholesome…we call on Southern Baptists to express themselves in opposition to the showing of offensive movies both in theaters and on television through letter writing, newspaper ads, and a concerted call to legislators for clear legislation that will prohibit the exhibition of obscenity either in movies or television.
Southern Baptists, for over a century, have had to reevaluate their stance on dramatic entertainment due to technological advances. They have gone from strict prohibition to careful engagement.
A few years ago, I took a pastorate with the goal of shepherding that flock faithfully for at least 25 years. I told them as much after an overwhelming majority of members voted for me to occupy the sacred office. It was a mandate, and I pushed offshore for what I hoped would be at minimum a quarter century of preaching God’s Word and leading God’s people.
But the seas of local church ministry were hurricane-rough from day one.
My goal was not God’s goal.
I stayed for a little more than three years—each year more deeply painful than the one before. Every ministerial and theological “button” I pushed—including things clearly mandated in Scripture—seemed to be the wrong one. Every decision I made, every piece of vision I cast, every change I sought to implement—no matter how careful my approach—triggered an avalanche of discontent, dissension, and unrest. At one point I grew paranoid like the young Martin Luther, wondering if God was disciplining me for some unconfessed sin.
I questioned my call to ministry. I questioned my salvation. Toward the end I even questioned my sanity, as the tentacles of depression clamped onto my heart and mind, their iron grip wringing me dry of vigor and joy. Maalox and 5-hour Energy became dietary staples.
Surely, I was under the wrath of an angry God. I reflected wearily on Jonah’s narrative—I could run, but could not hide. It robbed all my strength, exposing a zero balance in my bank account of wisdom.
Over time, I’ve gradually realized God was actually pouring love and mercy on me. Those explosive elders’ meetings? Grace. Those awkward get-togethers with families abandoning us for the “going” church across town? Grace. The folks who thought my preaching was too dry, too theological, too pointed, and didn’t include enough homespun stories? Grace. My empty fund of wisdom and human resolve? Grace.
Amazing (Uncomfortable) Grace
But the form of grace God delivered wasn’t the kind our mind typically runs to when we ponder the term. It was what Paul Tripp calls “uncomfortable grace.”
When we think of God’s grace, we typically think of blessing, humanly defined: the savings account is full; the church is responding well to our leading and preaching; the children are excelling in school, music, and sports; there are backslaps and smiles all around for our competent service of God’s church. And yes, those things sometimes happen and are products of God’s loving-kindness.
But there’s a side to grace we seldom celebrate, a side that seems a little too dark for rejoicing. But God is light and in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). And in a day when a demonic prosperity “gospel” is spreading worldwide, we desperately need to recover a theology of uncomfortable grace.
What is uncomfortable grace? It’s when God gives you what you need, not what you want. I wanted 25 years. God wanted slightly more than three. Jonah wanted respite in Tarshish. God wanted revival in Ninevah. God won—and it was mercy all, immense and free.
In the Scriptures
The pages of Scripture overflow with the doctrine of uncomfortable grace, a subcategory of God’s loving and meticulous sovereignty.
Joseph wanted a friendly visit with his brothers in Shechem, but their murderous jealousy stripped him of dignity and left him a slave. In Egypt he was imprisoned, double-crossed by Potiphar’s wife and Pharaoh’s cupbearer. But God made him a prince and used him as an instrument of rescue for the Hebrew nation. What some intended for evil—it no doubt felt wicked to Joseph—God intended for good.
The Book of Psalms also bristles with the “other” side of God’s mercy. One psalmist sings of how God kept Israel’s foot from slipping, and brought them to a place of abundance, but not before:
You, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water. (Ps. 66:10–12)
Paul wanted to preach the gospel in Asia (Acts 16:6)—a noble desire if ever there was one—but God slammed that door, and spirited the apostle and his companions to Troas, where Lydia was converted. Then it was on to Macedonia, where imprisonment and affliction awaited. There, the apostle was molded into a pastor.
And we see this at Gethsemane. Jesus petitioned the Father to let the cup of wrath remain upright. Yet “it was the LORD’s will to crush him” (Isa. 53:10). The cross of Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of uncomfortable grace.
In church history
Throughout history, God’s choicest servants—both well-known and unknown—have benefited from such grace.
Athanasius defended Christ’s incarnation and helped orthodoxy defeat Arius’s heresy. His reward? Exiled five times.
Martin Luther stood before the imperial diet at Worms in 1521, planted his feet on the rock of Scripture, and courageously faced down the unbiblical teaching and practices of the Roman church, risking his life. In his wake, God stirred up the most glorious revolution in the church since Pentecost. We celebrated the 500th anniversary last year.
John Bunyan spent a dozen years in prison for preaching the gospel, vowing he would be “preaching it again by this time tomorrow” should he be released. Behind bars and amid squalid, disease-ridden conditions, he wrote one of the best-known books in Christian history. Millions read it today and become more like Christ.
Charles Spurgeon waged war with severe depression and anxiety in the years following the 1856 Surrey Garden Music Hall disaster, which left seven dead and 21 seriously injured. A frightening stampede broke out as the young preacher stood in the pulpit delivering the gospel. Today, millions benefit from a man God made one of history’s most published and beloved preachers. The vessel was broken, but the ointment spilled has healed millions.
We see it in the life of Joni Eareckson Tada, rendered a quadriplegic at 18 when she dove into shallow water, fracturing her spinal column. Following this tragedy, Joni sought to build a path away from God, one paved with doubt, anger, and suicidal thoughts. But God arrested her as a herald for the good news of rescue through his Son. God broke her. God healed her.
We see it often in pastoral ministry because, as A. W. Tozer famously wrote, God must wound a man deeply before he uses him greatly. My three-year tour and the heartache it entailed is not novel. All of us in ministry and many in the pew can recall instances of believers whom God has shown sanctifying mercy by dashing them hard against the Rock of Ages.
In our hearts
Paul Tripp points out that uncomfortable grace is one of God’s choicest gifts. And it should reform the way we view God and ourselves:
You are tempted to think that because you’re God’s child, your life should be easier, more predictable, and definitely more comfortable. . . . [But] struggles are a part of God’s plan for you. . . . You must not allow yourself to think God has turned his back on you. You must not let yourself begin to buy into the possibility that God is not as trustworthy as you thought him to be. . . . When you begin to doubt God’s goodness, you quit going to him for help. You don’t run for help to those characters you have come to doubt. God has chosen to let you live in this fallen world because he plans to employ the difficulties of it to continue and complete his work in you. This means that those moments of difficulty are not an interruption of his plan or the failure of his plan, but rather an important part of his plan. I think there are times for many of us when we cry out for God’s grace and we get it—but not the grace we’re looking for. . . . It comes in the form of something we would never have chosen if we were controlling the joystick.
I am a far different man today, thanks to those three gut-wrenching years in my first full-time pastorate. God used it as dynamite to raze my foolish pride. He used it as a hammer to smash ten thousand idols that warred over the throne of my heart. He reminded me that he is big, and that I am small. It was awful. It was life-disrupting. It was jarring and painful in ways I may never fathom. But though I lacked the spectacles to see it then, it was also glorious.
It was uncomfortable grace, and I am grateful for it.
God is God and we are not—a liberating truth for sons and daughters of Adam. My own outcome could have been profoundly different. Monsters like anger, bitterness, and desire for revenge haunted my heart and mind’s darker rooms. But grace drove them out. I was tempted to question God’s wisdom. But through meditation on Scripture (especially the Psalms) and prayer, he eventually helped me to grasp experientially the truth of Isaiah 55:8: “My ways are not your ways.” In love for us, God takes us down roads we never would have traveled on our own. They all lead to him (Rom. 8:28).
Many circumstances will break into your life that you simply will not understand. In those times, don’t hesitate to praise your loving Father for humbling, transforming, uncomfortable grace. He knows how to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:7–11), even if they arrive in the wrapping of pain.
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He is pastor of Christ Fellowship Church in Louisville, serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition, and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014) and co-editor with D. A. Carson of Coming Home: Essays on the New Heaven and New Earth (Crossway) co-editor with Collin Hansen of and 15 Things Seminary Couldn’t Teach Me (Crossway) and 12 Faithful Men: Portraits of Courageous Endurance in Pastoral Ministry (Baker). Jeff and his wife, Lisa, have four children.
The post Pastor, God may lavish you with uncomfortable grace appeared first on Southern Equip.
As a teenager, Jake Tuazon was committed to living a moral life. He went to confession, attended mass, and prayed to Mary. He’d even grappled inwardly with the pull to the priesthood. He was determined to earn his way to heaven. He’d discovered a passion for God at a youth camp, and for years, he remained committed to the little he knew of this God. But as time went on, he found the pressure of that crippling. He knew what he was doing still wasn’t enough.
“One night of partying just led to a bad decision,” he said. “That was the breaking point for me. I’m like, you know what? I’m going to hell. I guess since I’m going to hell, I might as well have fun while I’m here.”
As a Catholic, he was not only convinced of the doctrine of purgatory, but he also felt strongly that if he did not live a moral enough life, there was no way he was getting out of purgatory anytime in the next millennium.
After that moment, something inside him stopped striving. As his spiritual life spiraled out of control, so did his grades and focus.
“A passion for something had always been alien to me,” he described.
So, he joined the Air Force, as a jet mechanic, still not sure of what he even wanted to do with his life. But, he appreciated the stability the military afforded. He enjoyed money, his lifestyle of partying, and the nightly prayer to appease the Lord. He was living a comfortable life.
On a temporary deployment, he met a girl who would change his life. She was a believer, and she knew why. Jake was more interested in dating her than learning about her faith, but she made it clear that if he wanted to truly be with her, he’d need to be a Christian. He was confused. He thought he was.
“I was really impressed just how much she knew [about the Bible]. Me, I just never knew [much],” he said. In his strain of Catholicism, he was taught that one couldn’t understand the Bible, so he wasn’t required to read it. He knew it was God’s Word, and it had authority. But so did his church.
“The rule of moral contradiction was very strong with me. Either this or that was right. It couldn’t be both. She’s telling me all these things. I’m impressed. I’m really fascinated. I thought, ‘I know nothing about my faith. Let me find some more stuff out and then I can convert her.’ Obviously, I was not going to let this go.”
He didn’t own a Bible, so his first step was to find one. After that, he took to CatholicAnswers.com to defend his faith and win his girl.
He looked up why they pray to Mary, one of the biggest questions he was frequently asked. He explained it to his friend like this: If you love someone, you should want to meet their mom. The same principle applies to one’s relationship with Jesus.
“That makes sense,” she replied, “but it’s still not right.”
Determined to make his answers unbiased and prove his faith, he decided to look at a different source. “I needed something not biased towards me. I was wondering where I could go. And I realized, ‘Oh, the Bible.’ But then I realized I still don’t know how to read it.”
He googled again and found that the Bible was divided into books and chapters and verses. He then typed his same question about Mary into another website.
“I saw that the Bible never commands us to pray to Mary. In fact, it condemns it. It gave me a verse. I learned how to read it. I was like, ‘that can’t be real.’”
From there, he spent time researching all of his questions and substantiating the answers with the Scripture.
“I went through all these doctrines, and at that point I was thinking, ‘What else is there?’” he recalled. “How do you get to heaven?” He typed those words in, and Ephesians 2:8-9 opened an entirely new world for him.
“I read it. ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.’ And I stopped there. ‘What’s grace?’”
“I kept reading. ‘And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.’ I was like, ‘Wait.’ It was another thing I found that contradicted the Catholic church,,” he said.
He’d always had a fear of death. “I was always afraid to die. I knew I was going to, I was partying. I was getting into fights. I didn’t know if I was going to wake up. There are always stories of sinkholes in Florida. A plane crashing. I worked in front of jets. It was always in the back of my head: ‘I’m going to hell.’ I always tried to find something to make me forget about it,” he said. “But that’s always something I’ve been carrying.
“I read that it says faith is not a result of works. At that moment I realized that I never knew why Jesus Christ was on that cross. He died for our sins. When I put and two together, it made so much sense.”
He’d been going to church and Bible study to impress that girl, but after that moment, his motives changed. On February 14, 2016, he surrendered to the calling God had put on his heart and made a public profession of faith. The following week, after nearly breaking his mother’s heart with his declaration, he was baptized for the second time in his life, this time by immersion.
From there, he told his coworkers and anyone who could listen about his newfound faith. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, is this what passion is?’” he said.
As he exited the military, he knew God was calling him to employ his newly minted passion in a greater way. For him, that meant seminary. In 2017, he surrendered to that call and is now working on his diploma in the Billy Graham School.
“The Lord just really made it clear that I’m supposed to be here,” he said. ”He’s been working on me. He continues to work on me. I don’t know the direction he’s taking me, but it’s been a wild ride, and it’s not over yet.”
I like to think of myself as something of a Netflix hipster. I remember when Netflix was just a pesky DVD-by-mail competitor to Blockbuster: no due dates, no late fees. That was good news for me as a nine-year-old, because I got to watch Gettysburg as many times as I wanted.
In the years between 1998 and 2018, Blockbuster shuttered and Netflix exploded in popularity thanks to its on-demand online streaming option, which makes it possible to stream entire seasons of television in the span of a weekend. The company has also released hundreds of original shows and films since 2013.
Netflix, along with the other forms of video streaming software it inspired (Amazon Prime, Hulu, etc.), has fundamentally changed the way we consume media and entertainment. With the rise of smart TVs and smartphones, thousands of movies, television shows, and documentaries are right at our fingertips at all times. We can watch more video content than ever before more immediately than ever before. But in another sense, Netflix is nothing new. Revolutionary as it is, Netflix merely forces the church to re-answer questions it has wrestled with for centuries. What is the relationship between the church and the world? What is culture? And what should the church do with it? The new technology needs an ancient apologetic.
Picking what to watch on Netflix is not a morally or ethically neutral act. We make choices each time we watch a TV show, listen to music, or scroll through our social media feeds, and those choices expose us to a wide array of perspectives on the world around us. Netflix in particular can certainly be dangerous — the normal broadcast television content regulations don’t apply to the entertainment company, meaning language, violence, and nudity are scattered throughout its original programming. Combined with binge watching, this creates what we could call the Netflix Problem.
The idea that secular culture can be dangerous is not new information to virtually anyone in the church. Many of us grew up hearing this message from the pulpit on a weekly basis. If you have been in the church since childhood, chances are you’ve been to a CD bonfire or heard your pastor warn you sternly about the spiritual dangers of rock music. Fundamentalist isolationism was the way to “engage the culture” for decades. I attended a Christian school system in which faculty and staff weren’t allowed to go to movies (for reasons I’m still not clear on).
Applying the same logic to Netflix, perhaps the answer to the Problem should be to ignore it completely. But according to Douglas K. Blount, professor of Christian philosophy and ethics at Southern Seminary, that won’t work for very long.
“One of the surest ways to be captivated by secular culture is to try to ignore it,” he says. “First of all, I don’t think you can. The culture is like the air you breathe — it’s all around you. You can do the best you can to ignore the broader culture, but I think you’re kidding yourself if you think you can pull that off. A properly Christian perspective on culture is not that we should ignore it, but that we should pay close attention to it and be distinctively Christian with respect to the way we consume it.”The Great Hallway
From the beginning of history, humans have been telling stories to each other. Storytelling is ubiquitous — both in secular literature and didactic, religious literature. Nearly half of the Bible is narrative, and Jesus told over 30 recorded parables. Stories resonate with us, Blount argues, because we live according to the stories we tell ourselves.
Stories are not just fun distractions, but can calcify into culturally defining worldview systems. Blount calls these “metanarratives,” or grand societal stories that make sense of everything. This is where things like Netflix, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook become so potent, because — like metanarratives — everyone has them.
According to Facebook’s own reporting, the social media giant eclipsed 2 billion active users in 2017. That means approximately a quarter of humanity is on the same social media platform, constantly interacting and instantly transmitting information. While worldwide metanarratives used to be geographically confined, they are now constantly competing for cultural primacy — even in a congregation of 100 people, said Timothy Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. This makes the task of preaching and evangelism harder than ever.
“The biggest challenge for young preachers is that there’s a diversity now of people in front of you,” Keller told Towers in an interview. “When I was 20 years old, a 20-year-old in Iowa and a 20-year-old in New York City were radically different people. You were basically formed by whomever you lived near. But today, the 20-year-old in Iowa and the 20-year-old in Manhattan are almost the same, because they’re consuming all the same stuff. I just think the world is more complicated, the cultures are more diverse, and I think you have to do more reading and know more things. It’s not enough just to know the Bible, you also have to know the world more.”
Keller recommends that preachers devote more time — perhaps even a degree program — to seriously studying apologetics before stepping into ministry. The cultural context is just too diverse for a one-size-fits-all approach.
To underscore the difficult task facing the church, Blount points to an old Greek metaphor called “the marketplace of ideas.” Picture a giant room populated by dozens of booths — these booths represent all the various religious perspectives, he says. These are the various metanarratives. Now envision a hallway that runs between them. From here, you can neutrally and objectively evaluate the various metanarrative booths and pick one that seems right to you.
This picture, Blount says, is fundamentally flawed.
“There is no neutral hallway,” he says, “The only way to evaluate other religious perspectives is from within a religious perspective. So, I can evaluate Hinduism, but only from a Christian perspective, because I am a Christian. Now, we know that Christianity is the right perspective to have, and it’s only from the Christian perspective that you can get a proper perspective on all the other views. But the only way to recognize the truth of that is to become one of us and look from our point of view.”Bridging the Gap
Every time we open Netflix, we access a host of these metanarratives. That does present a challenge for the church, Blount says, but it also provides a unique opportunity. Christians should not uncritically and mindlessly imbibe media and entertainment, as if it’s all equally true and edifying. But neither should they insulate themselves from it, because even entertainment can help us perceive the cultural factors that motivate the thinking and behavior of unbelievers around us, Blount said.
“I don’t watch Mad Men because I think my ability to probe a particular episode is somehow going to illuminate the faith for somebody,” Blount said. “I watch Mad Men because it gives me insight into the culture in which I live — which is helpful.”
The Netflix Problem is of course tricky, and finding a balance can be difficult. Keep in mind these seven principles for engaging media and entertainment next time you fire up your Apple TV:
Think well. The first step to thinking biblically is learning how to think, period, according to Blount. “Become thoroughly grounded in the faith, learn to think well, develop your critical thinking skills, then apply those skills in a way that’s consistent with the faith you’re grounded in,” he said. “Then, I think you’ll be in pretty good shape when you engage the culture around you.”
Be confident in your faith. A lot of Christians are hesitant to interact with competing worldviews because they aren’t very secure in the one they already have. This is where apologetics becomes essential, Blount says.
“How often are we encouraging younger and less mature Christians to connect with the historic intellectual heritage that is theirs in virtue of being part of the church? We can help less mature believers come to recognize that what they have in the broader culture may not be all that intellectually credible. And as a matter of fact, there’s very little out there in the culture — if anything — that you can’t find very significant and deep Christian responses to, if you know where to look. For those of us who have the training, it’s our responsibility to help them know where to look.”
Be humble. The thing that keeps you from both mindlessly insulating yourself from the culture and mindlessly embracing it is what Blount calls “confident humility” in the Christian faith.
“I’m confident that the faith is true. It is the truth, I don’t doubt that, but I also recognize that God is at work all over the world. It’s only through Christ that salvation comes, but that doesn’t mean that unbelievers don’t have things to teach me. Maybe there’s something really valuable in watching a television show that’s written from a different perspective, because maybe that perspective has something to teach us. Insofar as it conflicts with the faith, it’s false, but there might be aspects of it that are true. And even where it’s false, there might be usefulness in letting that inform my understanding of people who disagree with me.”
Read the text. I don’t mean a literal text (unless you’re reading a book … that would be a literal text). Everything you consume emerges from a metanarrative, and carries a certain message — a concept it is trying to transmit, inculcate, or normalize. The creator doesn’t always explicitly intend that message, but it’s always there. Blount observes that the X-Men films seem to extend a clear message about self-acceptance and social inequality very much at home in a pro-LGBT culture. Every show and movie and song is trying to sell you something. Are you buying?
Don’t be afraid to relax. This is “unstringing the bow,” according to Mark Coppenger, professor of Christian apologetics, and it’s not a sin.
God could have made us eat food for purely nutritional purposes, Coppenger said, but he made us able to enjoy it. But know your limits, he says. “Do you work in order to finally get leisure, or do you rest so that you can recover and recuperate for your work? I think it should be the latter. I believe we will work in heaven, for example. So the question is: whatever recreation or entertainment or culture consuming you do, does it actually refresh you for your calling?”
Watch in moderation. Relatedly, binge watching is a very real danger of seemingly endless repositories of entertainment. Coppenger has a suggestion for knowing when you’re taking your media consumption too far. “If you find yourself less joyful in the Lord or are less inclined to witness or pray, that’s a canary in the coal mine that you’re spending too much time entertaining yourself. You shouldn’t make a hard-and-fast formula — like restricting yourself to one hour of TV a week — but you have to watch for signs.”
Know your triggers. Netflix in particular is filled with some highly questionable content. No show or movie is so irreplacably good that it is worth compromising your santification.
Blount: “You have to ask yourself: ‘When is my media consumption counterproductive to my conformity to Christ and my edification?’ And I think the answer is different for different people, but you need to cultivate self-awareness.”
It might mean abstaining from shows you like, but your soul is always more important than another season of whatever you’re watching.
Our children remain under attack by society’s increasing immorality, the disintegration of bioethics that no longer upholds sanctity of life and the image of God as foundational underpinnings, and the confusion caused by biomedical technologies blurring the line between life and death. To be sure, abortion continues to be a paramount concern—at the writing of this post, more than 550,000 abortions have occurred in the U.S. This horrific practice has been discussed previously.[2-3] In addition, the sexualization of our children and youth continues to escalate daily.[4-5]
A new disturbing specter has arisen. Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article discussing the euthanasia of children. Euthanasia is defined as the intentional act of ending a person’s life so as to relieve pain and suffering. Belgium legalized euthanasia of children in 2014, permitting doctors to terminate a child’s life at the request of the child. Last year, they euthanized three children, ages 9, 11, and 17. Several countries have already legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide for adults. In the U.S., seven states and Washington, D.C. have legalized forms of assisted suicide. With the legal platform already present and providing a slippery slope, it is perhaps only a matter of time before these countries and states follow Belgium’s lead.
Most are familiar with Psalm 139:16a, which speaks to personhood in utero, and its application against abortion. However, Psalm 139:16b is equally important and speaks against euthanasia, stating:
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me…
God is the author of life, both its beginning and end. Just as man cannot arbitrarily define when life and personhood begins, he cannot arbitrarily create a rubric defining when life ends. Scripture affirms the dignity of human life from “the womb to the tomb.” The Southern Baptist Convention has been clear with several resolutions against euthanasia and assisted suicide.[8-10]
I know firsthand that pain and suffering are real and can be complex problems. I worked in a comprehensive cancer center for 13 years, walked a journey of terminal Alzheimer’s with my mother and a journey of terminal mental illness with a sister, and experienced a wife and other family members with cancer. However, illness-induced pain and suffering call for compassionate treatment, not death. Palliative care and hospice are compassionate healthcare. Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide are not healthcare.
Children are to be protected, not euthanized. Psalm 127:3 attests that “children are a gift of the Lord.” Children are made in the image of God and possess value and dignity. Dare we destroy a gift given by the Father of the fatherless? Jesus stated in Matthew 18:6:
…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Euthanasia of children is more than causing a stumbling; it is killing them. What would Jesus say to that?
“Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear my word.” (John 8:43)
In the climax of the 1992 movie “A Few Good Men,” Col. Nathan R. Jessep vehemently responds to Lt. Daniel Kaffee’s inquiry for the truth with the famous line, “You can’t handle the truth!” In the colonel’s mind, revealing the truth about “code red” will limit his ability to protect the citizens of the United States, not to mention tarnish his honor. To keep everyone else in the dark is to protect his ability to defend their freedoms from the enemy. He never understood that his clandestine “code of honor” was destroying the freedoms he was so desperately trying to protect.
In John 8:43, Jesus says something very similar but for very different reasons. He tells his would-be followers, “You cannot hear my word.” Or, in other words, “You can’t handle the truth!” These would-be disciples cannot bear His word, which is truth, because they belong to a different father and another world (John 8:23, 44). No matter how much truth He may speak, they simply will not understand.
Why? Because truth and untruth are incongruent. They are on two different planes of existence.
If something is true, say 2+2=4, then it cannot be untrue. Something is either one or the other; there is no in-between.
And so when Jesus speaks, the men hear truth but cannot understand it. To them, the truth is a lie for which Jesus must die because the truth is too terrible to bear. They can do no less because they belong to the father of lies, to the realm of untruth. Thus, in order to understand truth, one must first be in the truth. So how can one be persuaded to the truth if it is unbearable?
Much research deals with this knowledge paradox. One such study outlines what is now called the Kruger-Dunning effect. Basically, it states that the knowledge necessary to produce correct judgment is the same knowledge necessary to recognize correct judgment. If one happens to be incompetent in a certain field for lack of knowledge—like English grammar, for example—it is that same lack of knowledge that impedes one from realizing he is incompetent in English grammar. So if your grammar is bad, you won’t know it, because you are bad at grammar!
In other words, you need to know what you don’t know in order to know if you are right. What an insurmountable paradox!
Philosophers and scientists have dealt with this question of discovering that which is unknown for millennia. How is it possible to seek what we are unaware of? How can we recognize what we don’t know?
One Christian philosopher, Kierkegaard, probably comes closest to finding a solution to this problem. He argues that mankind, who is in a perpetual state of untruth due to past actions, is in need of an other-worldly Teacher, who ultimately becomes a Savior, who can give us truth and the condition to understand it. Without this Teacher-Savior, we are lost in perpetual untruth.
Clearly, Jesus is the only Teacher-Savior who can do this. In His earthly ministry, we see Jesus continually speaking truth, but its reception is varied. Many are curious but confused. Some interpret it to serve their own personal agendas. Others flat out reject it (like those in John 8). And one even wonders, “What is truth?”
A few sense a shimmer of the truth, but it is not until after the cross and outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the disciples finally receive the condition to understand. People can hear, see and even parrot the truth all day without ever understanding it. As Kierkegaard argued and Jesus taught, it is not until individuals receive the condition to understand the truth that they can bear it. Without being given the condition to understand, we remain on the dark plane of untruth.
What can we make of all this? First, do not underestimate the power of the Gospel. Remember that we used to be a Col. Jessep on some level, preferring the darkness because it allowed us to live and work by our own code of honor. Yet some gutsy Christian challenged our untruth and planted the seed of truth in us. And one day, by the grace of God, that tiny seed of truth burst forth in power and overcame our untruth! Remember, the Gospel overpowers all untruth (Romans 1:16).
Second, proclaim boldly the Gospel in the fields of untruth. The culture in Jesus’ day reviled the truth, and many in our postmodern culture can’t handle it either. Still, our mission remains, and we must bravely follow in our Teacher’s wake. We belong to God and speak His truth, not our own ideas. We represent Christ and His Kingdom, not our personal relativism or agenda. Let us, then, as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, boldly proclaim the unbearable truth with love, compassion and courage.
Lastly, do not fear the mission. Fear is one of the reasons Christians refrain from proclaiming truth. We get apprehensive about being called a liar, put on the defensive and challenged to “prove” something to those who cannot understand it. It truly is a hopeless cause because the Gospel cannot be explained, only announced. We do not need to make excuses for the truth to those who cannot grasp it yet. The Gospel may appear weak because, at the present time, it is an offer of grace that can be rejected. But again, do not confuse gentleness and grace with weakness; the Gospel is the power of God and the only way anyone has to escape untruth. No matter how hopeless it may feel to preach the truth in our world of untruth, preach on! In the end, truth will prevail.
 Jesus alludes to this fact in John 18:37-“Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 77 (6): 1121–1134.
Søren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard 4th Printing Edition, ed. Howard V. Hong & Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 116-125.
Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18:38).
There are many examples where the disciples’ minds and eyes were opened so they could recognize truth. Some examples include illumination to recognize the identify of Jesus (Luke 24:31; Acts 9:18), to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:45) and to turn from Satan to God (Acts 26:18). The opposite is also true, where eyes or minds were “darkened” so they could not understand (Romans 11:8-10).
Kids can be annoying. We can be tempted to think that they were born to irritate adults. It seems like the brief moments of sweetness that they display are the only things that keep adults from shipping them to their own island, where they can live out their days annoying one another as they descend into the climactic scene from Lord of the Flies.
But there is a problem with that statement. Annoyance is not an attribute someone can possess; it’s a response we have. Kids aren’t annoying so much as adults get annoyed. Deep down inside, we know this, despite how we usually phrase our annoyance: “You’re so annoying,” or, “Those people are annoying me.” In truth, we ought to say, “I’m annoyed.” Annoyance is our response to circumstances we dislike.
We can think of annoyance as a quiet form of anger. Anger is the feeling of “against-ness” at some perceived offense. Annoyance is a version of this — feeling aversion for someone who is not conforming to our standard for them.
Adults find children annoying largely because the children do not conform to their standards of decency. Children are louder than they ought to be, messier than they ought to be, smellier than they ought to be. All of this annoys adults, who generally do a better job of meeting those expectations. But annoyance is not limited to adult-child interactions.What the Bible says
This post is part of a series that attempts to show how Scripture gives a framework for addressing different ways our hearts respond to the world that aren’t mentioned specifically in the Bible. The introductory post laid out our guiding principle: God designed people to respond from the heart to the unique situations in which He places them. So, our specific question to answer in this post is, how should we understand annoyance as a disruption of how God designed our hearts to respond?
What we find is that the problem with our annoyance is the same as the problem with our anger. Annoyance is an emotional indicator that we are judging others according to the standard of our own desires. If a person does not give us what we expect and think they ought to, we are against them. In the case of kids, we want peace and quiet or some modicum of humanity. When we don’t get it, our emotional temperature rises.
In the case of adult relationships, the standards become more difficult to identify. A professional who is annoyed with his colleague may want the basic courtesy of talking about something other than his colleague’s accomplishments in every conversation. A husband who is annoyed with his wife may want recognition for his efforts. An adult child who is annoyed with her parents may want space to make her own decisions. All of these are personal conceptions of what others ought to be providing.
But, as I stated earlier, the problem with our annoyance is the same as the problem with our anger. James writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:19–21).
Ungodly anger does not produce the righteousness of God because it is applying some other personal standard of righteousness to the people around us. My colleague talks about himself too much, and I am against him. My wife doesn’t see how much I’m trying, and I am against her. My parents don’t give me the space I want, and I am against them.God’s standard of righteousness
But these are not the standards of God’s righteousness. Personal preference, not God’s standard, are at their centers. Even when I am able to baptize my own standards with biblical language—my colleague shouldn’t boast about himself, my wife ought to show me respect, my parents shouldn’t provoke me—my annoyance orbits my own inconvenience rather than the violation of God’s standard or the smearing of His character.
What’s the solution? Humility. James phrases this as “receiving with meekness the implanted word,” meaning that we do not insist on our standard of what others ought to be but instead submit to the Bible, the record of God’s merciful heart toward His people. If God were as easily annoyed as we are, we’d all be in deep trouble.
Poor kids. We get so annoyed with them. But maybe our teaching and discipline would go a lot further if our standards were shaped by God’s standards rather than our personal preferences. Maybe our relationships with other adults would benefit in the same way.
This article was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.
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In the past few years, evangelicals have discussed and debated the exclusivity of Christ intensely. For scholars, pastors, and engaged Christians, the belief that Jesus is the only way profoundly changes the way we live and interact with others. Here are four ways:1. If Jesus is the only way, you must be courageous.
We must not flinch from telling others that Jesus is the only way, even if it means we are rejected by others.
Consider the blind man Jesus healed in John 9. He boldly testified to what he knew about Jesus, even though it cost him social standing and acceptance. He forfeited his place in the synagogue, and thus lost the approval of those with power and influence in the community. He was faithful to what he experienced, repeating over and over again that Jesus healed him of blindness. And when Jesus revealed himself as the Son of Man, the man who was formerly blind worshiped him.
But the Pharisees reviled the man as an ignoramus, criticizing him for trying to teach them and characterizing him as one entirely born in sin. And his parents showed they were cowards, for when they were asked about their son, they said:
We know this is our son and that he was born blind. … But we don’t know how he now sees, and we don’t know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he’s of age. He will speak for himself.
His parents protested ignorance since they didn’t see first-hand what happened. They gave an answer that would preserve their social standing. They put their finger in the wind and concluded it would be too costly socially to stand up for Jesus.
How about you? Do you shrink back from saying what you believe to gain the praise of others? Scholars, do you modify your words and even your convictions to ensure your social standing at academic societies like ETS, IBR, or SBL?
I am always struck and convicted when I read why many did not believe in Jesus, according to John 5:43-44. Jesus says:
I have come in my Father’s name, yet you don’t accept me. If someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe? While accepting glory from one another, you don’t seek the glory that comes from the only God.
The fundamental reason for their disbelief, despite their words, was not intellectual or theological. They lusted for praise from others, and therefore they failed to believe. It is right for us to regularly ask ourselves: Am I captivated by fear of what others think? Am I holding these beliefs to get praise from others whom I respect? Or am I living as if Jesus is the only way, so there is nothing sweeter to me than receiving the glory that comes from God? May God help us to stand firm so that we live to bring honor and praise to him.
Many today think we are arrogant if we believe Jesus is the only way. How can we, finite and limited, claim to know the truth? Such a view contradicts what Scripture teaches: We know the truth because the Holy Spirit has revealed Christ to us. Paul makes this plain in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16.
The words of G. K. Chesterton are prophetic:
Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction—-where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. … the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.
If we live like Jesus is the only way, we will be courageous. We will testify to the truth in Christ. We will not trim our convictions to please others, but in our teaching, preaching, and writing we will be faithful to our Lord.
We will remember the words of Paul to Timothy: “So don’t be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, or of me his prisoner. Instead, share in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8).2. You won’t detract from truth.
Living like Jesus is the only way also means that we will be humble. Our Lord calls on us to courageously and boldly testify to the truth, but sometimes the way we testify to the truth actually detracts others from the truth.
I remember when I was a young scholar, and some of the most prominent defenders of evangelicalism were known for their brilliance and their boldness in fighting error. But they were also known for their arrogance and egos. There is no excuse for departing from the truth of the gospel, but surely some have left evangelicalism behind because of the spirit with which we have defended the truth.
When we are contending for the truth, we must not forget Paul’s admonition to Timothy:
The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim 2:24-25).
It is hard for people to hear the truth that Jesus is the only way if we speak with an arrogance that suggests that we are the only way. We must be firm in contending for the truth, but Paul also commands us to be gentle and patient and to proclaim the truth with gentleness to those who disbelieve. Gentleness doesn’t mean that we are wimpy. There is a gentle firmness, a gentle sternness. But we must beware of anger, for it so often stems from the flesh.
And those who oppose us are watching us, wondering if we are genuine or if we pontificate about truth to exalt ourselves. If they see anger, they conclude that we are defending ourselves rather than the Lord. They suspect that we defend certain positions to advance ourselves rather than Jesus. So we may proclaim that Jesus is the only way but actually live as if we are the only way.3. You’ll promote Jesus, not yourself.
My third point reveals itself when we draw attention to ourselves rather than the way, Jesus. We aren’t living as if Jesus is the only way if we focus on ourselves in conversations. Like everything else in life this is a matter of spiritual wisdom. There are no formulas here. If you have the opportunity, it isn’t wrong to talk about your writing projects and speaking opportunities. In fact, not sharing what we are working on may be a form of false humility. But we aren’t living as if Jesus is the only way unless we obey Colossians 3:17:
And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
If we are promoting our own name, we are not doing “everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” If we are living to impress others, we are not living for the glory of God, and we are not honoring him by depending upon him. If you dominate most conversations and don’t really listen to others, then you aren’t living as if Jesus is the only way. If in most situations, you are the big cheese, and you are critical, cynical, and negative, then your pride is motivating you rather than the glory of God.
Do we listen — really listen — to others? As 1 John says, we demonstrate our love for God by loving our brothers and sisters. We don’t truly love others if we don’t listen to them respectfully and seriously. One of the dangers of being Christian leaders is that we may listen to fewer and fewer people as we get older. And we may fall into the trap of having all of our prejudices confirmed, so we don’t really see ourselves as we are.
That’s one reason it is a good idea to listen to our critics, for even if they exaggerate their critiques, they almost always see something that is true about us, something that we need to repent of.4. You’ll be thankful.
When we live as if Jesus is the only way, we become thankful people. As Psalm 36 says, those who know God “feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” Believers drink from the living water that Jesus gives us; we feast on the beauty of God; we find him to be our joy, our meat and drink; we are happy and thankful because of his love. We know that there is nothing greater than knowing Christ. Everything else is dung in comparison.
And you know what? People will know, no matter your personality, if God is your portion, that can’t be hidden. It will be evident. And they will be reminded by your joy and contentment that Jesus is the only way.
This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
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It was an email a pastor hates to receive, especially on a Monday morning. “Dear Pastor, we have loved serving here. We love the preaching and the people. We have grown as a family. But God is moving us somewhere else . . .”
In that moment I remember praying a pray that went something like this: “Dear Lord, I know every member matters to you so every member should matter to me. But I’d love if you could explain to me why you took this family and moved them out of town. I have that list, you know, of families I’d be more willing to part with.”
Yeah I prayed that and, if most pastors were truthful, they’d admit they pray similar prayers. Some of this desire is rooted in wanting to see our churches flourish and grow. And some of this desire is rooted in us pastors being frustrated on Mondays at having to deal with difficult people.
In seminary, we envision pastoring amazingly healthy churches, with few problems and people who soak up our doctrinally rich, Spurgeon-like sermons every week. We see, in our mind, leadership pipelines and building projects and multiple campuses. We assume that after only a few years at the helm, we’ll be invited to speak at leading conferences. These blessings can happen. When they do, we should praise God for his favor.
But more often than not, church life is difficult, mundane, and different than we may have assumed. Its easy, if we are not careful, for pastors to grow disillusioned by a seeming lack of success. This happens, I believe, because we often lose site of a simple fact: We are not pastoring machines or processes, but people. Discipleship is not mass-produced, but hand-crafted.Numbers and faces
In the modern era, there seems to be a perennial argument among pastors. Should we prioritize numbers or prioritize shepherding? I think this is a false dichotomy.
I’m struck by the way Luke mentions numbers throughout the book of Acts. For example, in Acts 2:47, we read about three thousand converts and in Acts 4:4 we read about five thousand converts. And in both passages, it says, “many were added daily.”
Somebody was counting. Somebody was keeping track of the numbers. And Luke saw fit to put that number in his account, inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.
When pastors say, “I’m not into numbers,” I always want to say, “Every number is a person, with a face and a soul.” Of course we should be into numbers. We should want to see masses of people come to faith in Christ. This means more people brought over from death to life. This means more worshippers of our King Jesus. This means many new brothers and sisters in Christ.
I’m also struck, however, by the way the New Testament urges a personal aspect of shepherding. To the Ephesian elders, Paul urges an intentional shepherding (Acts 20) and to the Corinthian church speaks in parental terms about his personal care of his people (1 Cor. 3:2-4). In Peter’s first letter to the church, he encourages pastors to “shepherd the flock of God that are among you (1 Pet. 5:1-4).
If you’ve pastored for any length of time, you’ll know that what Paul is describing is time-consuming, difficult, and messy. We often talk of discipleship in terms of systems and mechanisms and pipelines—and these things are vital in church life—but we must remember that we are not pastoring assembly lines, but real people, whose sanctification process may not move in the straight line we envisioned in class.Pastoring with dignity
Our churches need to be hubs for converting, discipling, and sending, but in our mobilization we cannot forget that church is also simple, faithful soul-care. Which is why we shouldn’t pray those prayers I often prayed, wishing away the hard people and asking only for the people I preferred. God often brings to our congregations people who don’t neatly fit into our org charts and spreadsheets and five-year plans.
God builds his kingdom, often, through the weak and the broken, the simple and the stubborn, the hurting and the hard-hearted. I think, right now, of the man in our church is in the final season of life. He served faithfully for many years but now, experiencing advanced dementia. I think of the wonderful woman, in my first pastorate, who had severe Down’s syndrome and often burst out with weird comments during the Lord’s Supper. I think of a girl who battled suicide and was in and out of the hospital.
If I’m only thinking about building that assembly line, I’ll not see where people like this fit. But if I’m thinking of the Spirit of God building his church, I’ll embrace what leadership books and growth seminars and how to podcasts often edit out. I’ll see what God sees in those we consider weak or nuisances or too messy: future rulers of the universe.
Shepherding is really about seeing the whole person, not merely their potential. Shepherding is about recognizing the dignity of those whom the world wants to ignore or pass by. Shepherding is about seeing our own weakness and the way in which our Great Shepherd was willing to lay down his own life in order to save us, even as we were uninterested in him.
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For the last century, entertainment has becoming increasingly individualized. From the inception of record players, to drive-in theaters with individual speakers, to the release of headphones, and now the ever-common individualized playlist, we are a people trained to consume the world as individuals.
And when we bring that approach to God, we can easily think of our spiritual lives as “me and Jesus” time. We are encouraged to devote time to our personal devotions, to listen to our favorite iPod teachers, and make confession in journals (we may never share with others). And while there is something good about a personal relationship with the Lord, it can train us be far too individualistic when we approach the Lord.
And if this is true in general, it is especially true at the Lord’s Table.How Do You Approach the Table?
Ask yourself, when you come to the Lord’s table, is it an eyes-closed, personal time for you and the Lord? Or is it a corporate experience of worshiping God together? And if it is more private than corporate, why is that? Is it because Scripture has led you to such an approach, or is it the way our culture has trained you to “draw a box around yourself” and worship God from our heart?
Interestingly, in the Bible we find that worship is regularly a corporate event. The covenants of the Bible were alway inaugurated with a communal meal (see Gen. 31:53–54; Exod. 24:9–11). The exodus was a large-group event, as was every other sacrifice and festival in Israel. Moreover, when we hear the heart of Old Testament saints, they often long to be with the “throngs” going to worship at the house of God (see Psalm 42:4; 55:14).
Again, without denying the place, purpose, and priority of personal devotions and private worship, I believe we would all do well to remember the corporate nature of the new covenant Christianity. At least, it offers a needed corrective in our individualistic age. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, we learn how important corporate worship is.
In his teaching about anger, Jesus goes so far as to say that if on the way to worship you remember that someone has something against you, leave the gift at the altar and go and be reconciled to them (Matthew 5:23–24). Clearly, horizontal reconciliation is as important to the Lord as vertical praise. In fact, maybe even more so. Peter says a husband’s prayers are hindered when he has mistreated his wife (1 Peter 3:7), and throughout the New Testament, stress is laid on making peace with one another.
In fact, Jesus says peace-making is what proves that a disciple is a child of God (Matthew 5:9). And there is no more practical place to do that then at the Lord’s Table. In fact, in 1 Corinthians Paul teaches the divided church of Corinth that they must examine themselves before taking the bread and the cup (1 Corinthians 11:27–32).Jesus’s Unity-Making Meal
Though we often miss the covenantal themes of the Bible, Matthew 26:28 and 1 Corinthians 11:25 make it plain, the Lord’s Supper is “new covenant” meal which remembers the death of Christ. In this way, it is not a privatized meal that individuals share with Jesus. It’s not some kind of “date night with Jesus.” Rather, it is a communal meal, where all those in covenant with Christ worship him for what he has done, and, just as importantly, we worship him together as brothers and sisters unified in Christ.
Indeed, the Lord’s Supper has a vertical and a horizontal axis. The vertical focuses on Christ, his finished work, and the promise of redemption that forgives us our sin and reconciles us to God our Father. The horizontal focuses on the community of reconciliation God has created by Christ’s death and resurrection. And in truth, when we chew the bread and drink the cup, we need both a heart of thanksgiving towards God and towards one another. That is to say, our joy should be increased by hearing the chewing and swallowing of the man, woman, or child sitting next to us.
Again, so great is this horizontal aspect of the meal, Paul says we must examine ourselves lest we eat the meal in an unworthy manner (11:27–28). Now, I suppose, this unworthiness could be eating the meal with hidden sin in our heart (cf. Ps. 19:12–14). But in the context of a divided church in Corinth, I suspect the unworthy manner has far more to do with broken relationships and offenses held between brothers and sisters in Christ.
Therefore, to apply Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:23–24 to the church today, the Lord’s Table is the place to remember Christ and to remember if there are any people we’ve offended. Has my anger injured another? Have my words brought division to the church? Am I in fellowship with all those around me at the Table? Or, do I need to repent and seek reconciliation?
Clearly, there is a place to worship God with eyes closed. But at the Lord’s Table there is also a need to have eyes wide open. Those whom we eat with are the ones God has given us to love, forgive, and seek forgiveness from. Rather than simply have a privatized faith, the table with its physical elements and bodily movements calls us to give attention to Christ and his body.Preparing for Sunday
Therefore, when we prepare to take the Lord’s Supper this Sunday, or any Sunday, and hear from Jesus words about anger in Matthew 5:21–26, let me ask—Is there anyone with whom you need to be reconciled? If so, don’t wait. Leave your gift at the altar, go to them and seek peace. Remember, this is what the children of God do, and this is what the Lord’s Table calls for. When we remember what Christ has done for us, it moves empowers us to move towards others in reconciliation.
Truly, the Lord’s Supper is more than just a privatized meal with Jesus. It is a communal meal where we proclaim the gospel to one another with the bread and cup. And thus, as a meal that recalls the new covenant reconciliation of Christ, it beckons us to move towards one another with the grace we have received.
To that end, let us pray and prepare our hearts to make peace with one another as we worship the Lord around the Table and with the Word.
The alarm rings at 5 a.m. on Wednesday morning. He fumbles down the stairs. Shower, coffee, Bible, prayer, and out the door to work. Today will be a long day. He starts his delivery route at 6:30 a.m., does the first leg of his route and comes back to the warehouse. He changes into a suit, and drives to a funeral home. Phil had cancer, and passed away a few days before. He officiates the funeral, seeking to serve the family and proclaim the gospel.
After the graveside service, he returns to the warehouse for the second leg of his delivery route. He finishes around 4:30 p.m., just in time for a quick dinner with his wife and kids, before leaving the house again to lead prayer meeting at the church, and have a meeting with one of the deacons about the Thanksgiving potluck that weekend. He gets home at 9 p.m., debriefs with his wife, and collapses in bed. Tomorrow will be full, too. He is behind on Sunday’s sermon.
Welcome to bi-vocational pastoral ministry.Unique Calling
The unique challenges of pastoral ministry are well known. These unique challenges are only compounded when the pastor is bi-vocational. Time constraints, financial concerns, and difficulty accomplishing basic pastoral priorities often define this ministry. These constraints cause a unique temptation for the bi-vocational pastor to neglect caring for his own soul.
If I have learned anything in my first two years of bi-vocational ministry, it’s this: I must give strategic forethought for caring for my own soul. How can a bi-vocational pastor maintain a vibrant, dynamic, and realistic relationship with Christ?Get Real: 2 problems every bi-vocational pastor faces
Before we get strategic, we need to feel the weight of the war. Consider two unique weights bi-vocational pastors carry:1. Bi-vocational pastors experience unique spiritual opposition.
All Christians wage war against his own flesh (Gal 5:17), the world (1 John 2:15), and the devil (Eph. 6:12). But bi-vocational pastors often experience this war in unique isolation. Bi-vocational pastors often serve small churches with limited or elderly congregants at the end of their life, and are not able to give the spiritual support and friendship a pastor needs. The bi-vocational pastor can be viewed as a chaplain who preaches sermons, visits hospitals, and conducts funerals, but not a growing Christian in need of normal spiritual relationships just as much as his congregants.2. Bi-vocational pastors experience unique limits.
All faithful pastors regularly feel pressed to their limits. Bi-vocational pastors feel this pressure especially in the area of time and energy. By definition bi-vocational pastors are balancing pastoral ministry, family, and another part-time or full-time job.
Even if bi-vocational pastors manage to make all their responsibilities fit “on paper” they often experience lack of energy by grueling work, church, and family schedules.
Burnout is the all too common result of these unique weights on the bi-vocational pastor. Families are damaged, churches are neglected, and the pastor’s own soul becomes embittered at those he is called to shepherd with joy (1 Peter 5:2).Get low: Depend on Christ, not yourself
The bi-vocational pastor carries unique weights that call for a unique posture. If the bi-vocational pastor approaches his ministry expecting the same speed, productivity, and time as the full time pastor, he will quickly falter. He must take a lowly posture in his ministry that, if embraced, will lead to two unique blessings.
First, the bi-vocational pastor will recognize and rejoice in the centrality of weakness for fruitful ministry. He boasts in his weakness because he sees it as essential to experiencing the power of Christ in ministry. God even gives Paul a thorn in the flesh, a persistent and painful limitation that hindered his effectiveness in ministry but increased his dependence on Christ (2 Cor 12:9).
Bi-vocational pastors, then, are perfectly positioned to experience the power of Christ. For they walk weekly on the razor edge of weakness as they experience each pastoral task crying out for more; a few more hours on the sermon, a few more people to counsel, a few more minutes to prepare for that meeting. Yet, God ordains that bi-vocational ministry to have its unique and persistent thorns, not so that a pastor may avoid his limitations, but so he can boast in them to allow the Spirit of Christ to empower him in his weakness. We are called to rejoice in this reality and expect power from Christ.
This rejoicing leads to the second blessing of our lowly posture: embracing our limitations rather than fighting them. We are called to make deep sacrifices for our people (Col. 1:29), but are servants of Christ, not Christ himself. We must have a biblical anthropology if we will survive in this unique calling. We are men of dust (Gen. 2:7). It’s God’s good design for the bi-vocational pastor to need sleep, food, and relaxation.
The bi-vocational pastor must remember God’s high expectations on him as a man called to lead other believers (1 Tim. 3:1-7), but also God’s low expectation of him as a finite creature. God remembers that they are dust (Psalm 103:14), and treats them according to their limitations. God even criticizes pastors who would forego sleep because they anxiously think they must do the work that only God can do in their churches (Ps. 127:1-2).
We must not only rest in God’s power in our weakness, but also in his compassionate understanding of weakness. We must remain lowly.Get going: 4 steps to flourish as a bi-vocational pastor
As you feel the reality of your unique burdens and embrace the opportunities of your unique position, there are four basic, obvious rhythms I would commend to you as a bi-vocational pastor:
1. Remain vigilant over Bible meditation and prayer. Get up earlier. Stay up later. Leave the email unanswered. Answer that text later. When we neglect our souls, we become disoriented and overwhelmed. When we drink daily from the fountain of life it transforms the way trials are received, weaknesses are handled, and limitations are confronted.
2. Develop leaders. We are not spiritual renaissance men who are gifted in every area. We need support. Start a bi-weekly discipleship group and invite any person who is eager to serve and learn. Pray, share your burdens, generate ideas, and dream about the church. You don’t need young men to do this. Pour into that deacon who wants your church to revive. This fights against the isolation so many pastors feel.
3. Create a “pseudo-elder board” from pastoral friendships. Most bi-vocational pastors are solo pastors who serve with a handful of deacons. Whether the bi-vocational pastor is in a rural setting with no surrounding churches, or in an urban setting neighboring several like-minded churches, tremendous encouragement and insight can be given to the intentional bi-vocational pastor. Through a monthly face-to-face meeting, video or phone call, or even email, the bi-vocational pastor can build a “pseudo-elder” board of like-minded pastors who can confess their sin in safety, get trusted counsel, and build friendships. Although bi-vocational ministry often occurs in isolation, the bi-vocational pastor does not have to feel alone.
4. If possible, take regular preaching breaks. Regular breaks from preaching promotes opportunities to breathe, meditate on God’s Word, and spend time with family. Take the time you normally spend on sermon preparation to spend some extended time in prayer, or to take your wife out for the day. This will aid your ministry, not hinder it.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at Practical Shepherding.
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