Augustine on Christmas

“Rejoice, you just;” it is the birthday of the Justifier.
Rejoice, you who are weak and sick; it is the birthday of the Savior, the Healer.
Rejoice, captives; it is the birthday of the Redeemer.
Rejoice, slaves; it is the birthday of the one who makes you lords.
Rejoice, free people; it is the birthday of the one who makes you free.
Rejoice, all Christians; it is the birthday of Christ.

From Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, page 32


Our Savior, dearly beloved, was born this day. Let us rejoice. No, there cannot rightly be room for sorrow in a place where life has been born. By casting out fear of death, life fills us with joy about the promised eternity. No one has been cut off from a share in this excitement. All share together, a single reason for joy. Our Lord, finding no one free of guilt, has come to liberate all.

Let saints exult, for victory lies within their reach.
Let sinners rejoice, for they have been called to forgiveness.
Let heathens take heart, for they have been summoned to life.

Leo the Great (400-461)
From Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel

Christmas Encouragement

On this day, dear brothers and sisters, Christ was born to us. Let us prepare for him in our hearts a dwelling full of obedient service. Let us prepare a crib, a cradle brilliant with the flowers of a good life and the perpetual sweetness of its fragrance. Let us receive the tiny little Lord in our hearts. May he grow and make progress there, nourished by faith; may he ascend to youth there on the steps of life; and may he exercise the powers which are mentioned in the Gospel.

Caesarius of Atles, 471-543 AD. Quoted from Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel, by John D. Witvliet and David Vroege. Page 44

Lessons Learned

I've mentioned a number of times that while I've served here at Faith Church for over 25 years, it was not until 2003 that I became the Senior Pastor. I've learned a lot over the last three years, but there are still things that sneak up on me and surprise me a bit.

One of those happened yesterday. I conducted a funeral for an 89 year old lady in our church who passed away last week. Her death was not unexpected, due to illness, nor was the service particularly emotional. Attended by maybe 30-40 people at most, it was a simple 25 minute service followed by the burial (man was it cold standing in the cemetery!). But for some reason funerals take it out of me. I found it really hard to focus yesterday afternoon, and am a bit toasted this morning too.

The other lesson re-learned has to deal with Christmas sermons. Though I have taught adults extensively over the course of my time here, I was not in a situation to have to teach seasonal series. The first year of preaching Christmas was easy - I had never done a Christmas series. Last year was a bit more difficult. This year was harder yet. Make no mistake - there is a lot to say about Christmas, but I am finding that coming up with something fresh for three or four weeks straight is not always easy. I don't know how you guys who have been preaching for 10, 20 or 30 years or more do it, except that you must rework past sermons. I'd be interested in hearing what some of you more experienced preachers do.

At any rate, for my own edification, as well as to prompt my thinking, I've been reading a book entitled Proclaiming the Christmas Gospel. It is a collection of sermons by different pastors and teachers through church history, beginning with Jerome and ending with Calvin. Some of them are particularly rich, and each chapter is followed by the lyrics of a Christmas hymn. Highly recommended.

I'm going to share a few quotes with you during the next few days. In the meantime, today's slate includes putting the finishing touches on Sunday's message on the reason behind the incarnation. I leave you with this quote from Bede (673-735 AD): In a wonderful manner he began to be what we are, while continuing to be what he had been, assuming our nature in such a way that he himself would not lose what he had been.

By the way, Al Mohler is doing a series on Why We Preach. I liked this quote from yesterday's entry:

Preaching did not emerge from the church's experimentation with communication techniques. The church does not preach because preaching is thought to be a good idea or an effective technique. The sermon has not earned its place in Christian worship by proving its utility in comparison with other means of communication or aspects of worship. Rather, we preach because we have been commanded to preach.
Have a good day!

Arguing Over Christmas

As a teen and young adult, I can remember the annual round of articles in Sunday School papers (remember them - those 4-8 page mini magazines that we got for attending Sunday School each week). It seemed that each year they ran an article that championed people who didn't celebrate Christmas for their family, but gave all of their time, efforts and gifts to others. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but does everyone have to do that?

In my first pastorate there was an older couple whose large family of grown children had never experienced Christmas. Instead of the tree, gifts, songs of the season, etc., Mom and Dad had opted to "celebrate Christmas in our hearts all year long." None of the kids, to my knowledge were believers, and I always wondered if this somewhat dour approach to Christian faith pushed them in the wrong direction. I'm not saying that not getting presents kept them from Christ, but you wonder about the long-term impact of their choice.

On the other side you have those who go out and go nuts. There are some kids who are getting Xboxes, iPods, new computers, AND a bunch of other stuff. Mom and Dad will be in hock until the next ice age, but the kids will have a wow day.

You are no doubt aware of the current fuss over how the bad liberals are trying to take away Christmas. Christians are supposed to boycott Target and other stores, do battle with townships over nativity scenes, and heck, we're even supposed to be ticked off at the President for not sending Christmas Cards but sending Happy Holiday cards instead. I just read a headline on MSN about this. Are we serious. The President betrayed us? Who do we think we are?

To me, the silliness of the thing with the merchants is that we want them to recognize Christmas by calling their sales pitches and enticements to excess CHRISTMAS SALES. Yup. Put that word back in the circulars and thousands will be swept into the kingdom.

I hate the encroaching secularism, but I'd rather have that than put a false face on what really exists. What bothers me more than the secularism, though, are fellow Christians. I'm oh-so-tired of the "reclaim America and give me my rights" rhetoric. You can troop the founding fathers out dressed in elf suits to sing Hark The Herald Angels Sing until the cows come home, and that doesn't make us a Christian nation. Never has. Never will.

Frankly, I think that the political evangelical watchdogs want more than "our rights." My deep-seated suspicion is that they not only want a secular society to affirm our rights, they want that same society to affirm that they (the society) are actually better off with us around. In other words, don't just accept that we are here. Be glad! Don't just tolerate us. Like us!! We're good for you!

Someone in our church asked me what I thought about this whole thing. "What will we do if they take Christmas away?" Here's my answer: I guess we'll have to be Christians anyway.

The curmudgeons aren't going to spoil Christmas for me. Neither are the "I'll be broke until July" yuppies. And this year, neither are the evangelicals. I'm going to use the season to listen to music that uplifts the Savior. I'm going to spend time with friends and family, and enjoy their company. I'm going to try to lead our people to contemplate again the wonder that God became man to die for us and as us. I'm going to spend some money to care for the needs of my family (Christmas is a good time to replenish what has worn out) and some of their wishes too. And along the way I'm going to pray that more and more, with each succeeding secularizing year, that there is such a contrast between the way the pagans deal with this holiday and the way God's children do, that people may wonder if they are missing something. And I also hope that when that time comes, that we we'll be known more for the answer we give about the Savior than we are for our ability to picket, protest and petition.

So Merry Christmas. And Happy Holidays too.

Random Musings at the End of the Week

My wife teaches at a Christian School near us and they have been having some discussions among their faculty about the potential hazards of kids and weblogs. I was talking about the same issue with Ron Smith, our youth pastor. Dr. Al Mohler has an excellent article on the subject of teens and the internet that you must read and share with those who work with kids.

There is no better non-biblical proof for human depravity than simply observing how nearly everything becomes corrupted. Every medium that can be put to good use ends up being put toward sinful uses. Give us a new gadget and someone will find a way to put porn on it.

Phil Johnson posts about his first six months as a blogger. There ARE a lot of us sharing our opinions, and frankly, the two dozen blogs I skim through (I use an RSS aggregator) result in only a couple of posts that are meaningful to me, but they are worth sorting through for the insights, recommendations and resources that are discussed. One major benefit of blog reading for me has been the ability to be kept up to date on issues and trends in the Christian world and in theology.

Milton Stanley, always resourceful, points to a post about personal devotions at Gratitude and Hoopla. Worth the read, along with the Pimp My Devotional Time that I shared about the other day.

If you are a Pastor and have a Youth Pastor who would NOT use this kind of nonsense, get down on your knees and be thankful. And then thank them. From some of the stuff I read, this kind of thing proliferates youth ministry. Oh well, it gives me a good sermon illustration of what we do when the glory of God gets shelved.

I was encouraged by this post by Phil Ryken, Pastor of 10th Presbyterian Church in nearby Philly. They have been involved in a major roofing project. We're facing some major building projects of our own - original (read 60-year old!) heating system and air conditioning systems need to be replaced, and we are likely to need a new roof - all within the next three years. For a congregation of 250 that is a pretty tall order, and there are inevitable discussions that weigh the value of spending on these kinds of projects as opposed to other things. My biggest concern has been that we not forget that while we need to care for these things, we also need to continue to spend for ministries that are essential to our central purpose. We all agree on that, of course, and so we will manage our funds very very carefully. But I liked Phil's last sentence: And if Jesus returns in the meantime, he will be pleased -- I think -- to see that we have a good roof on our building and are planning to serve our city as long as we, by the grace of God, are able.

Have a wonderful weekend ministering and being ministered to. I am preaching on the last of the Solas - Soli Deo Gloria.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Faith Alone!

I've finished 4 of the 5 Sola statements and preached on the subject of faith alone this past Sunday. In my reading, I came across an interesting and helpful quote from John Calvin.

Calvin wrote: This is the main hinge on which religion turns, so that we devote the greater attention and care to it. For unless you first of all grasp what your relationship to God is, and the nature of his judgment concerning you, you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation, nor one on which to build piety toward God.

I explored that a bit, looking at Hebrews 10:19-22, hoping to show that justification by faith alone means, among other things, that I am not on probation in my acceptance with God, and that my access to God is not based on my performance. There are moments in a sermon when you can sense that you have the attention of your audience. Subjective, to be sure, but I felt that God was speaking to our people in that one point of the sermon.

Isn't it a freeing thing to know that we approach God because of what He did and not because of what we do? Praise God for His salvation!

By the way, the aforementioned Calvin quote came from a superb chapter written by Sinclair Ferguson in the book After Darkness, Light. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

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I printed out a good article this morning from the blog dialogos on the subject of quiet time/devotions. I look forward to reading it more thoroughly. I generally prefer to keep my quiet time related to what I am preaching on. But I also enjoy hearing about new ways of keeping time with God fresh.


Happy Thanksgiving to you all! I hope you have a great day with family and friends. We are truly blessed people.

I have been enjoying Purgatorio since I discovered the site the other week. As much as I hate the gimmickry that evangelicals use today, they might be trumped by some of the antics of yesteryear. Growing up as a youth grouper in the 60's and 70's made it possible to be exposed to former Mafia hitmen, unnumbered drug addicts, midgets, whistlers, burn victims, etc. who had a testimony. I do not question that the people who did this stuff were sincere, but sometimes we put on a freak show. Anyway, the record album covers on Purgatorio are priceless.

A few interesting quotes caught my eye this week. Philip Ryken shared a fascinating quote on the Reformation21 blog. Sad.

Fide-O offered this post with some good quotes by preachers about preaching. This one is good too.

Tim Challies, near the top of my favorites, has what I thought was a well-reasoned statement about Rick Warren. Thanks, Tim! Also worth reading is Steve Camp's review of Brian McLaren's book A Generous Orthodoxy.

Finally, good-bye to a classy man. Jim Thome, who signed a multi-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies three winters ago, has been traded to the Chicago White Sox. Thome played brilliantly in 2003 and 2004, hitting dozens of moon-shot homeruns in those two years. Last year be played for several months with injuries before undergoing season-ending surgery. Sadly, before he was shut down, the Philadelphia boo-birds were letting him have it a little. But they represented a minority. Most Phillies fans hurt with Thome at his inability to produce. His injury led to the emergence of Ryan Howard, a younger player with similar potential, and to clear the log-jam at first base, Thome was sent to the White Sox pending outcome of a physical. In an age of selfish athletes, I loved this quote, given during a phone interview yesterday:

"When I leave the game of baseball someday, I want people to recognize that I always put my teams first," Thome, 35, said in a telephone interview last night. "That's what I love about the game - being part of the team. I see in Ryan Howard what someone saw in me when I broke into the big leagues. And now it's time for both of us to seize the opportunity ahead of us. It's a win-win situation. I really enjoyed my time in Philadelphia, and I want to thank my teammates and the fans for a heck of a ride."

Class act, all the way. We (fans "own" their teams, you know) got a fine centerfielder and two great pitching prospects for Thome, but I'm going to miss him. I hope he hits a ton of homeruns for the White Sox. Thank YOU, Jim!

An Encouragement to Persevere

Laura and I had the opportunity to spend Thursday night through Saturday noon at Word of Life Inn in Schroon Lake, NY. We were attending a Pastor's Conference there because of the generosity of some folks in our church, and we had a great time. Dr. Donald Hubbard, who at one time was the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in New York City (Stephen Olford), brought great wisdom and insight into the life of Peter in his four sessions. We also had a touch of snow on the ground Friday morning, combined with the cold weather and Christmas decorations around the Conference, treating us to a foretaste of our favorite season (next to baseball season for me, anyway!).

One of the things that I appreciated most was the presence of dozens of fellow pastors, many of them serving in the upper New York and New England areas - not known for being easy for the Gospel. Many of these men serve in churches of 50-75 and faithfully preach Christ year after year. In an age where size dictates success, they would not be deemed as successful. But I suspect that God looks at this much differently.

Dr. Hubbard told a story during his last session that I think speaks to the heart of all of us who preach and teach. I know that I have written before about the idea of wondering if we make a difference. His story - true from his own experience - was intended to encourage us to realize that God is at work in ways we may never know.

He told of serving in a small church in Ohio at the outset of his ministry, and seeing a young lady evidence a sense of conviction as the Gospel was preached one night in an evangelistic meeting. However, the infant that she was holding began to cry and she left the meeting early. Dr. Hubbard found out who the visiting woman was, and after finishing his regular job one afternoon the following week, he went to call on her. He had just arrived at the home - an apartment over a bar - when the woman's husband and the husband's brother also arrived, greeted him gruffly, and went into the kitchen. He began to share the Gospel with the woman, but was stopped by the husband, who threatened to throw him down the stairs if he didn't leave.

Five years later, he was speaking in another church, and a man came to see him at the end of the meeting. It turned out that this was the brother-in-law of the woman, and he had overheard the Gospel during that brief time and had never been able to shake the words he had heard. He said that shortly after the visit five years before, the woman's husband had been shot and killed. He, however, had come to talk about Christ.

Thirty years later Dr. Hubbard was invited to go back to his first church and preach. After the service he was approached by a woman who asked him if he remembered a young woman with a baby who had left an evangelistic meeting, and subsequent a visit to her home. Dr. Hubbard replied that he indeed did remember such a visit many years before. The young woman said that she was in fact the infant in that story, and that her mother had come to Christ and that she herself had become a Christian along the way as well and they were both serving the Lord.

I'll gladly confess to a tear in my eye after hearing how our Sovereign God used the words of a young pastor who probably felt that they had amounted to nothing, and he encouraged us to remember that we don't always see the results of our ministry in the lives of our people.

So be encouraged, friends. What you did this morning in preaching God's truth is something God can and will use in His way. Let's keep at it, working hard in the Gospel, for God's glory!

Three Implications for Grace Alone! Today

I have been preaching on the five Solas of the Reformation. We studied Scripture Alone! on November 6 and Grace Alone! this past Sunday.

My goal has been three-fold: first, to highlight doctrines that are essential to evangelical faith; second, to help people understand and appreciate their spiritual heritage; and third, show that these beliefs were not just under attack in the 1500's, but in many respects are still current issues, even within so-called Evangelicalism.

While evangelicals would certainly affirm the essential nature of Grace, sometimes our behavior betrays that we really don't practice what we say we believe. I shared three indicators of this kind of thing: (interested parties, should there be any, can read the entire sermon at, and also listen to it at

1. We show that we don't understand "grace alone" when we present salvation as something that is the result of what we do. We've developed our own vocabulary in relation to the Gospel that lacks biblical root. As a result, when we ask people how they know that they are saved, they are likely to respond with something that they did: "I prayed a prayer" or "I went forward in an evangelistic meeting" or "I turned my life over to Jesus," etc. Semantics? I don't think so. If it were just sematics, there wouldn't be so many people questioning their salvation because they aren't sure that they "really meant it" or "really understood it." Sadly, security for some is in their response.

2. We show that we don't understand "grace alone" when we depend on marketing, techniques, having the right tools, etc., to reach people and help them grow. Our pragmatic approaches to ministry may be popular, but faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. People are not saved because of our cleverness.

3. We show that we don't understand "grace alone" when we think that our access to God is based on how well we're performing.

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For those of you who are in pastoral ministry, I would encourage you to consider either preaching or teaching these five great themes. My own study thus far has been spiritually enriching in my own life, and the feedback I have received from our people has been very encouraging.

Preaching and the Mind

Here is a great quote from Joel Beeke in a chapter entitled Evangelism Rooted in Scripture, out of the book Whatever Happened to the Reformation:

First, Puritan preaching addressed the mind with clarity. It addressed man as a rational creature. The Puritans loved and worshipped God with their minds. They viewed the mind as the palace of faith. They refused to set mind and heart against each other, but taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. Puritans thus preached that we need to think in order to be holy. They challenged the idea that holiness is only a matter of emotions.

The Puritans preached that a flabby mind is no badge of honor. They understood that a mindless Christianity will foster a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel will spawn an irrelevant gospel that does not get beyond "felt needs." That's what is happening in our churches today. We've lost our Christian mind, and for the most part we do not see the necessity of recovering it. We do not understand that where there is little difference between the Christian and non-Christian in what we think and believe, there will soon be little difference in how we live.

page 245-246.

By the way, I recommend the book highly. It deals with several very relevant topics.

A Great Story

The 11-08-2005 issue of PreachingNow just hit my inbox. I loved this story, but also appreciated the counsel. I try to document thoroughly what I use from others, but I can't imagine preaching someone else's sermon.

In his new book Preaching: How to Preach Biblically (Thomas Nelson), John MacArthur includes a chapter of frequently-asked questions posed to him about expository preaching. One of his questions deals with documenting ideas we draw from the works of others: "A balance is the ideal. We cannot document every thought in our sermons. On the other hand, we should give credit where due.

"Pastors sometimes ask me if they can use my material. I have given them blanket permission for anyone to use my sermons and preach them in whole or in part if they wish, and I do not want any credit as the source. If what I say has value to someone, I am honored for him to use it for God's glory. The truth is all His.

"Yet if someone re-preached one of my sermons without enriching it by going through the discovery process, that sermon will inevitably be flat and lifeless. The great Scottish preacher Alexander Maclaren once went to hear another man preach, a young man with a reputation for being a gifted preacher. Much to Maclaren's surprise, the young man said at the outset of his message, 'I've had such a busy week that I had no time to prepare a sermon of my own, so I'm going to preach one of Maclaren's.' He did not know Maclaren was in the audience until Maclaren greeted him afterward. He was very embarrassed and became even more so when Maclaren looked him in the eye and said, 'Young man, I don't mind if you are going to preach my sermons, but if you are going to preach them like that, please don't say they are mine.'

Reflections on 9 Months of Blogging

I started this blog in February 15, 2005.  From time-to-time I’ve wondered about the value of doing this.  I don’t feel that I can post every day, and some weeks have gone by with only 1 or 2 posts.  But blogging has been a positive experience overall, for a number of reasons.  I thought I’d share some of those reasons.

  • I’ve met some really fine people.  There are a couple of fellow-pastors with whom I have corresponded outside of the blog.  Though we’ve never met, these are people for whom I pray once or twice a week, especially on Sunday morning as we all share in the common task of feeding God’s flock.  I’ve benefited from some insights from more well-known speakers and pastors who have used blogging as an effective tool for edification and instruction.  I’ve been encouraged by the blogs of several women, and by the blog of one remarkable young lady ho is a freshman in college.  

  • I have to admit that it is easy to be negative and focus on what is wrong – and there is a lot that troubles me in our generation – but I am encouraged by the faithfulness of many.  Not everyone has given in to the culturally-driven church.  There are a lot of people, plodding along (in a good sense) with their small-to-medium size congregations, which – to quote Howard Hendricks – is more than we are ever going to want to give an account for.  There are people who are concerned about the purity of the Gospel, about biblically-rooted Christian faith and life, and I have learned quite a bit from them.  

  • I’ve been pointed to some outstanding resources.  Books, lectures, other blogs – all of these have been useful.  One of the reasons I began Stronger Church was to be able to recommend things that were helpful to me.  For as many links as I have pointed to, I have received far more from the insights of others.

  • Blogging has sharpened my thinking.  Most of us who are in ministry are very busy and don’t have a lot of time to investigate every new idea that comes down the pike.  In fact, I am amazed at how often I talk to people who are really uniformed about what is happening in the Christian world.  I won’t compare reading other people’s blogs with going to school, but there is a benefit that comes from the reading and interacting.  It is in some ways like being in a classroom.

So to those of you who are represented in these paragraphs, I thank you.  You’ve left a mark on my life over the last nine months that has been significant.      

Evangelicals Ruin Something Else

Here's the copy from a recent Christian Book Distributor (CBD) advertisement:

Toto Baggypants (Junior Asparagus) is a young Flobbit who has inherited a mysterious bean with unique powers from his uncle Billboy (Archibald Asparagus). Toto sets out on a quest to discover the bean's purpose with Ear-a-Corn (Larry the Cucumber), Leg-o-Lamb (Jimmy Gourd), and the dwarf Grumpy (Pa Grape). Their quest is full of adventure, great danger (beware of the evil Sporks!) and much laughter. Join this fellowship as they climb Much Snowia, endure the Razzberry Forest, and eventually trek deep into the land of Woe. Will the "Fellowship of the Bean" complete their quest?

This new VeggieTales episode also features the original song "It's About Love" by country music star Wynonna Judd. Plus Larry the Cucumber, dressed up like Elvis, is featured in a special edition of Silly Songs with Elves!

I mean, granted it's not the Bible, but good night. Forget rolling over - Tolkien must on a rotisserie in his grave. I have never read the Lord of the Rings series, but I have listened to all 40+ 90-minute cassettes of the unabridged version three times. The ease with which one can identify biblical themes may be up for discussion, but LoTR is a piece of literary art. And these guys, making sure that cute 'n shallow win out, have made it into velvet painting.

How dare I criticize when I haven't even watched it? No need to - the problem is the concept. I don't care if the edible elves win a stinking Oscar. We've already got the Lord of the Universe portrayed as a baby carrot. Can someone put this crowd in a freezer bag before they work their dumb-down magic on anything else? Here's the message kiddies - don't take anything of substance seriously. We can make a cartoon of it.

Oh yeah:

8. A plush doll of Martin Luther that says "Here I stand" when you squeeze his belly.

How We Failed to Capitalize on Reformation Day

What is wrong with us? We've missed a major opportunity to make the Reformation relevant to 21st century people. The marketing geniuses that provide meaningful stuff for the shelves of our Christian bookstores certainly have overlooked this one. Why are we not seeing quality items for sale such as:

1. Indulgence trading cards.
2. An "educational" video series on the Reformers using animated pieces of fruit - or maybe cute little bears dressed in period costume.
3. Reformation T-shirts (oh right, we've got them)
4. Luther and Calvin vs. The Pope and Tetzel wrestling action figures.
5. A modernized version of the 95 Theses, entitled, "Hey Mr. Pope!"
6. Greeting cards with pithy sayings from Luther's Table Talk. Luther needs to be cartoonized of course. How cute! (Hey - is there any way we can get these on Starbucks cups??)
7. Diet of Worms gummy candy.

Oh well, maybe next year.

Reformation Sunday

Happy Reformation Day. #488 if you are counting.

My sermon yesterday morning was a quick overview of the Reformation, identification of the five "solas" that I plan to study with our church, and some reasons why the issues of the Reformation lead to pastoral concern today. If you want to listen to it, it should be up on our website sometime today.

I took the train in to Philadelphia on Friday afternoon to pick up 100 copies of the Cambridge Declaration from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. I also found that the book A Reformation Reader by Denis R. Janz was very helpful. What was especially cool was the fact that the book came with the complete text in Logos/Libronix format.

Anyway, while not a typical expository sermon, I felt it was worth taking the Sunday to raise awareness of the issues involved. Our people seemed to find it helpful, so that was good.

This week I am going to be reading some materials on the sufficiency of Scripture. On top of the pile is RC Sproul's book Scripture Alone.

Eric Svendsen has a good quote about the Reformation from Philip Schaaf on his blog. OldTruth has an interesting note on why we need the Puritans, as well as a good one on preaching. Jollyblogger talks about why we need to appreciate the Reformation. A reminder as to why all three need to be heeded.

Reformation Sunday and the Independent Church, Part 2

I had intended to add more to this several days ago, but did not.  My apologies to those of you who stopped by looking for something new.  

Over the last week-plus I have had my intent to preach through the five “solas” of the Reformation affirmed several times.  In preparing to preach this week, I am reminded at how both believing in and following Jesus Christ are based on objective revelation.  There are numerous calls in Scripture to stand solidly on the foundation that was heard at conversion.  

I try to walk two miles two or three times a week at a local park.  My iPod was playing a sermon on pastoral ministry by Alistair Begg.  He was talking about how some feel that no one listens to preaching anymore and arguing the case for why people do listen to preaching.  I was thinking that if we could get people to concede that preaching still has a valid role in the church today (something that I wholeheartedly affirm), certainly that preaching has to be focused at the day-to-day experiences of the listener.  Doctrinal preaching then, has to be set aside.  Maybe a Sunday School class on doctrine can be offered for the super-interested, the more intellectual listener.  But not in the pulpit!

Yet by the grace of God doctrinal preaching changed the course of history.  These five basic affirmations of biblical Christianity have enormous impact on real life.  Part of good doctrinal preaching has to be to show that to be true.  

Because I prefer teaching a passage rather than doing a topical study in a sermon, I’m planning to focus on one particular text each week.  But I’ve assembled some fairly new resources on the truths of the reformation that I would like to commend to you.

The late James Boice wrote Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?  It spends a chapter on each of the five major doctrines.  I recommend it highly.  Gary Johnson and R. Fowler White have edited a book entitled Whatever Happened to the Reformation.  The forwards are written by R.C. Sproul and David Wells, and Michael Horton contributes the afterward.  In Here We Stand, one of the best books I read this year, Michael Horton’s chapter on the Solas is superb.  R.C. Sproul has a fine book called Scripture Alone that goes beyond the scope of one sermon on the Bible, but I will recommend it as a resource for those interested in more than we can cover on one Sunday morning.  Ditto for his book on Justification entitled Faith Alone.  Terry Johnson wrote The Case for Traditional Protestantism which deals with these five doctrines, and finally After Darkness, Light: Essays in honor of R.C. Sproul is a fine exposure to the Reformation truth.

The next entry on this blog will probably deal with what I hope to accomplish in this series.  

* * * *

As an aside, I have had the opportunity to attend Mark Dever’s lectures on preaching at Westminster Seminary over the last two days.  They have been excellent.


Reformation Sunday and the Independent Church

Our church was birthed 69 years ago by a group of 99 people, including the pastor, who left a denominational church because of a growing liberalism in that denomination. Moving a few blocks down the street to the local fire hall, Faith Community Church began its ministry in 1936. In what was certainly somewhat of a reaction to the problems inherent in denominations gone bad, the constitution specifies that the church may not join any ecclesiastical group, denomination or fellowship. In other words, we're independent.

All of the churches that I have been involved in since my family trusted Christ in the mid 1960's have been independent churches. One was a member of the Independent Fundamental Churches of America, the other was an independent Baptist church (not of the fightin' variety) and Faith, which came from Presbyterian roots, has morphed over the years into what I have sometimes described as a "closet Baptist" church.

One could argue the pros and cons of denominations. I am not one who feels that the existence of different denominations and fellowships necessarily implies a fundamental disunity in the Church. Oh it can be that, but it does not have to be. There are positives and negatives of being on your own. I'd like to share some thoughts for a few moments on one of the things that I feel is a negative, and what I am doing this year to try to correct that.

In any church - especially independent congregations - it is possible (likely?) that people have little or no sense of heritage. And in a culture that seems to regard history as being somewhat irrelevant, most of our people have little interest and certainly little knowledge in pre-Billy Graham evangelicalism. And that concerns me.

Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the five "Solas" of the Reformation. This list of five key doctrinal beliefs that the Reformation emphasized. And as several have said (and as I have blogged before) we need Reformation Version 2 in our day. And unfortunately it needs to be pretty much about the same issues that were addressed in Version 1.

I was thinking about the five doctrinal affirmations referred to in the Solas statements. Do you notice that every one of them is under attack today - and not (just) from outside the Church, but from inside. There are people inside evangelicalism with a low view of Scripture's trustworthiness and authority. There are those who fudge on the issue of salvation by Christ alone. With the way the Gospel is presented today, grace and faith have taken a back seat to praying a prayer and coming to learn how special we are. The Glory of God? Fuggedaboudit.

We're not dealing with superfluous doctrines here - these are the core of Christian belief. Take them away and we no longer have Christianity. And that's why I want to talk to our folks about these key Reformation doctrines.

So beginning on Sunday, October 30, which is Reformation Sunday, we're going to spend 5 or 6 weeks talking about these key beliefs. I've postponed getting back into Romans until after the holidays because I feel it is important that we be grounded in these basic areas of biblical truth.

I'm not interested in creating another church holiday, but I am interested in increasing our awareness of what is essential to our faith, and it seems that this presents a good opportunity. What about you? Does your church provide any resource or teaching specific to these core beliefs at this time of year? I'd be interested in hearing about them.

In my next blog entry, probably in a day or two, I'd like to share a couple of resources that I picked up to help in this process.

On Sowing and Reaping

John Piper writes:

The absence of manifest conversions does not mean that a person has been faithless in labor. Only God knows how long a minister must sow before the reaping comes - or if the faithful minister himself will have the privilege of doing the reaping. But if he sows and another reaps, still the sower has not sowed in vain.

But should I be content to say, "I am a sower, another will reap?" No, not until my life is over. Then, if the reaping has not come, I will rest my life on this: One sows, another reaps."

From Taste and See, page 132.

Random Observations and Links

In my first pastorate in NJ, there was a church near us whose sign was the talk of the Christian community. A lot of people couldn't wait to drive by each week to see what new corny slogan was posted. Wish I had kept a list of the "best" of the "worst." The other week I spotted this one in our area: "Laughter is God's hand on the shoulder of a hurting world." Wow. If there was a prize for trite, I think we evangelicals might have a good shot at winning.

Speaking of winning, two bloggers, Phil Johnson and Scott McKnight, are Chicago Cubs fans. Thanks to the inability of the Cubs to beat the Houston Astros on Sunday, my Phillies go home for the winter and Houston goes on into the playoffs. I have my personalized Phillies jersey (a gift from three of our men upon my installation as Senior Pastor here two years ago) hanging in my office this week to commemorate a fine finish to their season. In case any Phillies read my blog (ha ha ha ha ha), thanks, guys!

Jim Martin has a great post on making a difference. A good opportunity to check the correlation between our beliefs and our behavior.

Fred Butler blogs about a pastor's dream - inheriting someone's library. He talks about some books that he especially appreciates.

Thanks to Tim Challies for a solid book review on a topic that is becoming the next big thing for evangelicals. Why can't we be satisfied with what God has revealed in his Word? Steve Camp blogs about Every Christian's Duty. How can our people defend what they don't know?

Here's a fine article on preaching from 1999, perhaps even more appropriate today.

I appreciated this interesting article by Fred Butler (two quotes in one post, Fred!!) on leaving King James onlyism.

Mark Dever, Phil Ryken and a few other contemporary preachers will be speaking at Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia in two weeks. The conference theme: Preaching that Builds a Healthy Church. Looking forward to going.

Westminster has a collection of lectures and chapel messages on their website. Many if not most of them are in Real Audio format, but they state that they are moving toward MP3. Thankfully!
If you don't want your system clogged up by the Real Player software, there is a program called Real Alternative.

That's it for this morning. Would like to post more original stuff but am in day two of a migraine. Thankfully not as bad as yesterday!

More Resources You Might Like

Following one of Phil Johnson's links the other day led me to a site sponsored by Twin City Fellowship called Critical Issues Commentary. You can download both print and audio copies of their every-other month publication. Worthwhile stuff.

Shane Raynor has a good post on Salvation, Repentance and Cheap Grace on World Magazine's Theogica Site. Wish those guys would get an RSS feed - have I missed it?

Those of you who do research papers and aren't in love with the citations part of writing need to check this site.

Kevin Jones (The Reluctant Puritan) shows a creative side. Nice job, Kevin.

I'm using a new book by John Piper as devotional reading. Check out Taste and See. I bought it at Westminster Seminary's bookstore, but they don't have it listed. Given their Amazon-beating prices and flat $5 shipping charge per order, you might want to check them out before you buy.

Two books on my reading list are Mark Dever and Paul Alexander's new The Deliberate Church and D.A. Carson's A Call to Spiritual Reformation.

Running the Blogger spellchecker on this post was a hoot, by the way!

New Stuff

One of the things I had in mind when I started this blog in February was to hopefully share quality resources with other pastors or interested laypersons. I recently came across a series of lectures downloadable in mp3 format on the Reformation from the ministry of Tom Browning, pastor of the Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Texas. These are recorded in decent quality, and went right on my iPod. They are apparently the first part of a multi-part series. It covers some of the men who paved the way for the Reformation and then focuses on Luther. Thanks, Tom, for making these available.

Old Truth blogs about being seeker-sensitive. Tim Challies begins a review of the book Is the Reformation Over.

Kevin Jones has a blog called The Reluctant Puritan that looks like it is one of those worth stopping by regularly. I could not find the RSS feed for it, but you can find the site here.

Probably one of the saddest and yet funniest things I've seen in some time is this post about a Texas fundamentalist church that issued trading cards of its staff members. Not only do they have the person's photo on the front, but soul-winning and baptism stats for the previous year are included as well. If I read the article correctly, the church made the particular staff person whose card was "released" during a given week available for autographs on that Sunday. Hat tip to Texas Baptist Underground. It appears that the author of the blog is a recovered militant fundamentalist.

A question for those of you who use news aggregators for blog reading: are you aware of any software that allows you to track comments and responses on other people's blogs? I am currently using FeedDemon, which apparently does not have that capability.

Did You Ever Wonder . . .

If there are such things as Mega-Mosques . . .
If some Buddhist temples are seeker-sensitive . . .
If other faiths have marketing seminars . . .
If Muslim kids have programs and make things out of popsicle sticks . . .
If Confucians are more "blessed" when their sopranos hit the obgligatory end-of-song high note. . .
If the Koran has been paraphrased more than three times . . .
If you can buy action figures in an Islamic or Hebrew bookstore . . .
If there is such a thing as a Taoist rock festival . . .
If Druids ever argued about music preferences . . .
If other faiths use cartoon vegetables to tell their most sacred stories . . .

Some Unfinished Business

Yesterday was one of those rare Sundays where I didn't get to finish my sermon. I don't plan my messages with the clock in mind, but it is uncanny how when I edit the sermon to put on our website, I come in often at 31 or 32 minutes. Go figure.

I am finishing a series of sermons on Paul's exhortations in 1 Thessalonians. I was preaching yesterday on 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 and got "stuck" in a good way on my second point, which was about discernment. I had some illustrative material from an article by Tony Campolo (his school is about 30 minutes from here) espousing an essentially Open theism view of the Hurricane. I had debated whether or not to use his comments, but felt that it was important to since he is a well-known speaker in our area. Talking about the implications of his teaching, which I personally reject as unbiblical, took a little more time than I had planned. But the fact is that there are people within the boundaries of contemporary evangelicalism whose views don't square with historical, orthodox, biblical Christianity. When Dr. Campolo advises that we take the view of a Rabbi who indicates that God is not as powerful as we have given Him credit for, he is clearly over the line.

Paul, knowing that there would be false teaching after he left Ephesus, commended the elders and their people to the Word. Enough side-stepping or re-interpreting Scripture. Enough denying what Scripture clearly teaches. If it doesn't square with the Word, it is to be rejected, no matter what a person claims about his or her relation to Christ. I read this quote by Donald Carson to our folks (thanks to the folks at for the tip) :

Read discerningly. Read everybody discerningly, whether you're reading my books or his books. Test everything by Scripture. Don't believe somebody just because they're nice and write well, or just because they're scratching where the current culture is itching. Always, always, always if you're a Christian, come back to the test of scripture, so far as that is humanly possible.

If you want to read Dr. Campolo's article, it is here. Those of you who feel that it would be nice for Evangelicals to stay within the bounds of theological orthodoxy ought to read this interview as well. I agree with Tim Challies statement about him being dangerous and promoting false teaching. And I don't give the proverbial rats hind quarters whether Dr. Campolo is a) more educated than me, b) a better speaker, c) more popular, etc. I can't do my job as a shepherd if I don't warn the sheep.

Compare Dr. Campolo's viewpoints to John Piper's. His words were dead-center honest and upheld the biblical glory of God. May God bless him for that.

Anyway, next week I'll finish the series, talk a little more about discernment, and talk about the need to have not only 1) an open heart, 2) a discerning heart, but 3) a responsive heart to truth. The text of my sermon is on our website at in case anyone is interested.

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The next hot thing, of course, wading through the evangelical pool, is to accept Mormons as co-believers. Phil Johnson has some thoughts. Tip of the hat to Milton Stanley for his contribution on reading the Bible and preaching. A good quote from John Stott.
Deep in the heart of Florida Marlins territory, I presented my brother-in-law with a Phillies shirt.

A Charge to A Dear Brother (in-law)

I had the great privilege of participating in the installation/dedication service for my brother-in-law, Dr. Brian Wingenroth, who is the new Senior Pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Pompano Beach. Here is the essence of what I shared in my charge to the pastor on Sunday. I hope it will encourage all of us who preach to preach the Word!

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Please open to 2 Timothy 4.

Brian, I have no doubt that you want to have an effective ministry. But how does that happen? We have seminars and books by the score that want to tell us what to do, how to be effective, what we need to focus on. I had several pieces of mail waiting for me when I got back from vacation last night purporting to revolutionize my ministry. And with rare exception I use them as an opportunity to be environmentally conscious - I recycle them!

But how do we decided what makes us effective? The more I think about the church and about what is important, I am convinced of two things:

  • Scripture must define our ministry priorities.
  • When we look at the pastoral task in Scripture, our primary - not our only, but our primary - priority must be the communication of God's Word.

I have no doubt that we think alike on this issue, but the climate in which we minister today is moving further and further away from this view of ministry. But I want to challenge you to commit yourself to an view of ministry that is not merely part of a passing and antiquated evangelicalism, but rather is rooted in the inerrant Word of God.

Read 2 Timothy 4:1-4.

I wish I had time to develop this passage in more detail than I do. What Paul says in chapter 4 comes out of his discussion in chapter 3 on the nature of Scripture. Because Scripture is God-breathed and because it is the means God uses to change lives, Paul prefaces his commands to Timothy in words that are clearly not just friendly counsel - they are divine edict (read again vs. 1). Out of this comes the command that forms the heart of this passage:

Preach the Word.
This is not preaching about the Word or preaching from the Word, but preaching the Word. There is a difference between preaching the text of Scripture and using Scripture to support our own ideas.

Our ideas don't bring life. God's words do. Our ideas don't change the heart. God's words do.

Preach the word persistently.
"In season and out of season" relates to the climate of the times. Whether it is trendy or not, whether it is popular or not does not matter.

How do we stay on track here? One way is by coming to the text for the message, and not to the text to support our message.

So preach the word persistently. Preach the simple and preach the profound. Our "climate" is one in which there are calls to lighten up and dumb down. Personally, I resent the insinuation that our people can not or will not learn. Luther taught the doctrine of justification by faith to peasants. Why can't our people learn doctrinal truth?

Preach the word to the heart.
"Reprove, rebuke, exhort" (correct, rebuke, encourage - NIV) are words that clearly tell us that we need to speak to more than just the mind. These words tell us that we need to speak with authority to values, behavior, the way people think, how they behave - because the Word does.

Everyone wants to be relevant. You will be relevant if you preach the Word and preach to the heart.

Preach the word with urgency.
A good pastor guards the souls of his people. A good shepherd knows that there is a real enemy who seeks to devour. A good shepherd knows that a verbal profession of faith does not guarantee genuine conversion. So we preach the word with a sense of urgency. We care that our people hear it and that they learn it, and we do all that we can humanly do to enable those things.

If we are not living in the climate Paul describes in verses 3 & 4, we must be very close. This is a day of doctrinal shallowness and compromise, a day in which God's nature and his priorities are distorted and sometimes even attacked. And you will compete with highly visible people - on TV, radio, and in print - who are considered credible because of their celebrity, and yet offer your people nothing more than spiritual candy.

Never take this pulpit without reminding yourself of the awesome responsibility of your task and of what is at stake, and preach the word with urgency. You do not know how long people will listen.

You may be accused of being old-fashioned and out of touch. Some people will visit and never return because you preach more than a feel-good message. Even some who are sitting here today may urge you to lighten up, which means to dumb down.

You pay that no heed. You determine at the start of your ministry here to preach the Word, to preach it persistently, to preach to the heart, and to preach with urgency, and when God brings this chapter of your ministry to a close, you will have fulfilled your responsibility to lead these dear people "into paths of righteousness for His name's sake," and you will have nothing for which to apologize when you stand to give an account "in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus."

Preach the Word.

Down Time

Laura and I are going to be spending a few days at Harvey Cedars Bible Conference on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. This has been an annual event for us for a number of years. A good time to rest and relax a bit. This year we're having to come home two days early. On Saturday we fly to Pompano Beach, Florida where my brother-in-law Brian has just assumed the position of Senior Pastor at the Grace Baptist Church. I will be speaking as part of his installation service next Sunday. I am honored to be a part of that.

Here are some things I found last week that you might have missed.

Ligon Duncan posted a list of helpful resources on the Reformation21 blog. The Reformation21 blog is one of my must-reads each day.

John Macarthur had two messages on the Grace to You broadcast last week that dealt with preaching. Good stuff. You can download his broadcast each day through iTunes. No doubt the Apostle Paul would have had an iPod.

A Saturday ago, Milton Stanley linked to a challenge for those of us who preach. Thanks, Milton!

Here are some links to an interview with Phil Ryken, Senior Pastor of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. The links appear on the blog Sharper Iron.

Steve Camp tells it like it is once again.

Have a good week, friends - will catch up again next Tuesday or so.

What I Want

In just a week or two Laura and I will finish 25 years of pastoral ministry here at Faith Community Church. For the first 22 I worked in various capacities as needs arose, mostly focusing on our educational programs and ministries to adults. However, in March of 2003 I began preaching during a vacancy in the Senior Pastor's position, and that led to the church calling me as Senior Pastor in September of 2003. Unlike what I am sure a lot of people have the opportunity to say, these last few years have been the best.

So this particular August/September period is a special one for me in several ways. However, it is also the time when most churches "re-gather" for the coming year, having allowed the summer to provide a break from some church programs. As we begin another year of ministry, I have been asking myself what I hope to accomplish. I have a list of "things to do," but I am not thinking about tasks. I am thinking about what I would like to see happen in the lives of our people and in our church as a whole, and I find that while I can do things that move in those directions, that the real work is done by God.

Here are some things that I am thinking about and praying for:

I want to see more of our people here more often. Our generation has re-defined faithfulness, and it is not for the better. Call me simplistic, but if we preach and teach because we believe that God's Word is in fact living and active, and that it does change lives, then it stands to reason that it is essential that our folks have a regular diet of the Bible. I'm praying that God will speak to our people about having a greater hunger for His Word.

I want to see more of our people in small groups and our groups become closer-knit communities. At present about 35-40% of our adults are members of a small group. Our groups meet weekly to share together, pray together, and learn together. While no groups are perfect, I know enough about what happens in our groups that I can state without question that those who choose to opt-out of small group participation are missing something significant to their spiritual lives.

I want to see our entire church become better followers of Christ. As I am composing this, I received an email from a friend in our church that contained an article on the nature of pastoral ministry. One of the points was that the church needed to be more focused on mission. I'm going to use that term in this way: I would like to see our people follow Christ more intentionally in their daily pursuits. A starting point for that is that they be aware that no matter where they go and what they are doing, no matter how mundane the task, no matter how public or private, no matter how frustrating or exhilarating, being a follower of Jesus Christ in some way relates to the way that we conduct our lives. In other words, I want us to live life with a pervading sense that we are living for the glory of God. That affects how I work, how I live in my home, how I deal with those outside of Christ, etc.

I am clearly conscious that these tranformations - which are hardly unique and probably could be said at any time by any pastor in any evangelical church - take place only by the work of God. So how does that relate to what I do? At the outset of this new church year, and as I reach into the second quarter of my ministry here, I am aware of the need to do several things so that God can use me as a catalyst as he sees fit.

I'm not sure that I can list steps or goals yet for myself. I am thinking about that, and plan to do more of that when I am on vacation next week. But my thoughts center at this point on my own pastoral and personal priorities as a student and communicator, and on the need to emphasize what I think God wants to do in our church - like building deeper community and living effectively (which includes both character and witness) in our non-church world.

How about some of you? What are you thinking about as you get ready to enter a new season of ministry? I'd be glad to hear what you want to be doing and doing better? Let's commit to pray for each other so that we will be God's tools in the task!

Tuesday Wanderings I Should Have Posted Yesterday

I am taking a semi-break this week. Our very capable Youth Pastor is preaching on Sunday, and I'm using a bit of vacation time by taking an afternoon off here and there through the week. I spent a good part of the day yesterday going through piles - you all have them, I am sure. Today I'm having my annual lunch with my friend Bob, who God used in my life while I was in high school over 35 years ago. We're remained friends since then and have opportunity to keep in touch via the internet. But we do manage to get together for lunch each summer.

Preaching is close to my heart, so I always appreciate articles on doing it right and doing it better. Al Mohler has part 1 of a 2 part series on his blog. You'll want to read it, I am sure. I've printed out a ton of preaching-related posts and articles to take with me on vacation in a few weeks. This goes in the pile.

Rebecca, over at Rebecca writes, posts a review of Brian Chapell's book Praying Backwards. This book seems to be getting a lot of attention.

Thanks to Got Doctrine? for a reminder of the grace of God. Also to Steve Camp, for reminding us what it means for God to be God.

Tim Challies has a story you simply must read.

Dale Barrett tells us "This is Why." Thanks, Dale. They don't always happen often, but they mean more than most people realize.

A great, thought-provoking post appeared at Cerulean Sanctum. I was going to share some thoughts about what Dan is saying, but I'll let the article speak for itself - it does so quite capably. Ok, I'll at least say this: words are powerful. We need to be careful what we say and what we allege. We need to deal with ideas and try to avoid personalities. And always, Scripture is our standard and not our preferences and prejudices. Thanks, Dan, for the reminder.

Being Thoughtful and Deliberate

On occasion I'll look through a devotional entitled Day By Day With the Early Church Fathers. Often their comments are challenging, and it is interesting to see how people of a different time sought to apply Scripture to their own situations.

Yesterday's reading was a quotation from Clement of Alexandria:

The Savior teaches nothing in a merely human way, but teaches His own with Divine and mystic wisdom. Therefore, we must not listen to His words with worldly ears. We must search out and learn the meaning hidden in them. For what the Lord seems to have simplified for the disciples requires even more attention than puzzling statements because of its overabundance of wisdom. In addition, the things He explained to His children require even more consideration than the things which seem to have been simply stated. Those who heard such explanations did not ask questions, because the Lord's words pertaining to the entire design of salvation were meant to be contemplated with awe and a deep spiritual mind. We must not receive these words superficially with our ears, but must apply our minds to understanding the Spirit of the Savior and the unspoken meaning of His Words.

I don't think that Clement is suggesting that there are hidden meanings that need to be discovered in place of or in addition to the normal meaning of what is said, but that we need to contemplate, meditate, think through what we read. Scripture is amazing in its simplicity, yet profound in its depth. In our fast-paced world, we may get the general meaning by a fast reading, but only by thoughtful contemplation can we see the implications. For me, this was a reminder to slow down in my study and meditation, and I've actually decided to start my prep a day earlier so that I have time to think more about the passage than I have.

Milton Stanley posted something yesterday about letting the text speak to us over time. Some guys can work on sermons months in advance. I have found that doesn't work for me. I do my best when I am focusing my energies on what I am going to communicate on the coming Sunday. Of course, in a situation where one is preaching through a book of the Bible, one can increase a broader perspective by continuing to look at the context of what is being preached on a given week. But the point of what Milton blogged is right - we need to do a thorough job of preparing the meal we intend to feed to our flock.

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Bob at Mr. Standfast recommends two CD's he has been listening to. If you like Celtic-type music, you will probably like these. As a long-term listener to country music (to be distinguished from the bad rock and roll that often plays on contemporary country radio), it is interesting to hear the Celtic roots in so much of American music. Now if Bob would just buy several of us the CD's to "review."

Tim Challies has a fantastic post: Making Christianity Better or Rock and Roll Worse. Right on. The authors - regardless of their spiritual orientation - have captured what we look like to people on the outside and it isn't pretty.

Slice of Laodicea points to an article entitled The Gospel According to Rick Warren. What was particularly interesting to me in the story was this quote:

John Macarthur is on target when he writes, "Listening to a seeker-sensitive evangelical preacher today, we're likely to think it's easy to be a Christian. Just say these little words, pray this little prayer, and you're in the club."

The article's author goes on to say that "Admittedly, salvation is received by faith alone in Christ alone, but it is not received by mouthing a little prayer lacking in biblical content and understanding, with the hopes that you will find purpose in life."

Macarthur warns, "People are breezing through those wide, comfortable, inviting gates with all their baggage, their self-needs, their self-esteem, and their desire for fulfillment and self-satisfaction. And he most horrible thing about it is they think they're going to heaven. "

Seen Around the Blog World

Bruce Johnson's blog has good counsel about how we introduce our sermons. If I remember, the first of the Seven Laws of Teaching is "gain and sustain the attention of the student." That applies to preaching as well. We don't have to set ourselves on fire, but how we start off is going to affect whether people listen or not.

Slice of Laodicea has a post about antagonism toward preaching. See, there are better ways, don't you know? (Some of you probably think I hate clowns.)

Al Mohler blogs about tradition.

Some of you may already be aware of this, but Covenant Seminary has a great selection of messages and lectures by their faculty and guest lecturers. They are downloadable MP3 files for those of you who, like me, are iPod connected. Load it up!

Phil Newton talks about the essentials of the Gospel on the website.

The Past

Bumble's response to my recommendation of an article about heritage resulted in my wanting to comment in a blog entry rather than in a response to his comment.

Several years ago our former Pastor had us repeat the Apostles' Creed. A family who had been raised in fundamentalism got up and left and they have never come back. For them, reciting the Creed was associated with formalism and dead denominationalism, and they wanted no part in that. I mourned their lack of perspective.

In the article I pointed to in the previous blog, Rick Phillips suggests returning to or re-acquainting people with the past. I think he gives some good advice, even if one doesn't want to use the particular forms he proposes.

Our culture is enthralled with the latest and greatest. We almost seem to need the latest and greatest to sustain our interest. And we view what came before us as antiquated and irrelevant. When we bring that approach to our spiritual lives and to our churches, we plunge headlong into a consumer driven mentality, and a mentality that suggests that youth is far superior to age and experience, and I believe we do so to the detriment of our people.

I recall a conversation recently with my brother in law. He had indicated that his Pastor had been approached by a visitor who told him that he could fill his church if he would "lighten up" and preach less, sing more. That - to me - typifies so much of what we hear today. Let me see if I get this right: Our people are biblically illiterate, but I should teach them less? Our people live lives that are no different than the pagans around them, but I need to focus on felt needs?

Those who came before us give us balance. Their wisdom calls us to faithfulness and devotion. We can ignore them, but in so doing we display an unusual arrogance. We certainly want to avoid the extreme that equates doing things the "old" way with biblical fidelity. But if using the contributions of those who have gone before us - even if their style is different than ours - can help deepen our people, then let's open that well from which they can drink.

Friday Pickings

Ligon Duncan has posted an article on what we ought to be reading. One of the helpful aspects of blogging is the ability to share recommendations.

My observation is that most evangelicals - especially those in non-denominational, independent churches like the one I pastor - have no sense of heritage. Here is a post on establishing balance.

Proof that the inmates are running the nuthouse.

A good article on the need for a strong foundation.

The Continuing Discussion About Reformation

A number of people have been blogging about the condition of Evangelicalism. Adrian Warnock wrote about his conversation with Phil Johnson regarding the attacks on orthodoxy today. I think he's got it right when he compares the situation to terrorism in that the attacks come from all sides.

This is a different battle than that which the Church faced a century ago. Back then, the enemy was more clearly defined. A general rejection of supernaturalism played itself out in a rejection of most if not all orthodox doctrines. Today, as Adrian and Phil observed, the battle is being fought on many fronts - and often by those who claim (and may in fact be) part of the Church. After the battles of Lexington and Concord at the outset of the American Revolution, the British troops made their way back to Boston, being picked off by unseen American militia hiding behind rocks and trees. Our situation is not unlike that today.

Steve Camp has a good post about some of the people whose approaches have and are potentially derailing us from being the Church in a biblical sense. Don't see a problem with anything he says there.

There seems to be a basic presupposition that Christianity has "not worked" and that something is needed to bring it up to date, make it more effective, etc. But as I see it, abandoning the heritage that some are so quick to toss aside is precisely what contributes to our weakness. As I said the other day, the answer is found in restoring what God has given, not trying to reinvent something else.

It's for that reason that I am so grateful for Mark Dever's 9 Marks of A Healthy Church. I doubt Mark or anyone on his staff reads this blog, but if this should cross any of the 9 Marks staff's desk, please tell Mark that his book, which calls us to hold on to what God has used for centuries, was the most significant book I've read in the last ten years and has deeply impacted my thinking about pastoral ministry.

We've got to hold on, seek after the Lord, preach and follow the Word, and live faithfully. Ideas fade away and become yesterday's fads. God's Word endures forever.

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Speaking of Steve Camp, another of his posts shows what happens when we get off track. What happened to 1 Thessalonians 4:10-12? I appreciate Steve's having the guts to call it as he sees it and show biblically how this kind of activism in the name of Christ is actually disobedient.

The folks at the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals have a new web-based publication. It is called Reformation 21. Thanks to Doug McHone of Coffeeswirls.

How about this situation for people who stand for the truth? Hat tip to Random Responses.

Monday Stuff

John Telfer Brown's blog Scotwise has frequently encouraging articles. I recommend a regular visit.

The Constructive Curmudgeon has a good review of Os Guiness' book Prophetic Untimeliness. I've looked at the book a few times at Westminster Seminary's bookstore, but haven't read it yet. I may after reading this review.

Walk Between the Lines has a good post about sermon stealing. With all of the material on the internet today (and frankly, with all that is in print) where do we draw the line between what is appropriate and what is not?

The Bible Archive has a post on commentaries, and also a link to some extensive commentary recommendations that we blogged about in February. A must- have if you like to review lists of recommended resources.

John Schroeder share some quotes from John Wesley's wisdom. Good reading.


Laura and I watched the movie Luther last night. I'd give it 2 stars out of 4.

The abuses of medieval catholicism (though the current catechism affirms the Treasury of Merit and indulgences) are quite graphic, and the film does a good job of showing the political ramifications of the Reformation in Germany. The scenery is fantastic, and generally the acting is quite good. Where the movie falls short is in its failure to clearly show Luther's own struggle. What we are shown is a man keenly aware of his own sinfulness, and his being pointed toward Christ. But the defining moment in Luther's life - and the theological substance behind the Reformation - namely, his understanding of justification by faith - is a no-show. We have a scene where Luther is preaching to his people, and he makes the point that it is Christ and not the abuses of the church that save. But his conversion is too basic to the plot of the Reformation to gloss over it the way the film did. I take away a whole star for that. (Hollywood quivers)

Nevertheless, I'd recommend it as helpful insight into the Reformation time period. I noticed that Christian Book Distributors had the older black & white DVD for $4 so I ordered that. I watched that over 20 years ago. CBD doesn't have the current one, but I have seen it in Best Buy for about $10, give or take. Two hours long.

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Interesting post on "Christian psychology" at Eternal Perspectives. Got Doctrine has a quote from Joseph Smith and a picture showing that the advent of the blow dryer helps a lot of us avoid this kind of bad hair day. Rebecca Writes has been sharing some material from different historic church documents. Rebecca lives and blogs from the Yukon!

Don't Know Whether to Laugh or Cry

My cell phone rang while my wife and I were out to dinner last night. My adult son was calling, hoping to find that I was home. He was flipping through the channels and came across two women TV evangelists. He said, "if the sound was turned down, you would think you were watching two women wrestlers." No doubt a couple of Dolly Parton hair-types. What boggles my mind is that people watch this stuff and not just for laughs.

One of my check-daily websites is called Major Geeks. They frequently list what they consider to be offbeat sites and the other day listed this one. Does the logo offend you? It offends me. So does the t-shirt being sold at the top of this page. "Come on, Peter. Paul said he was all things to all men that he might win some." I wonder if there is a more abused verse in Scripture in our current evangelical environment.

Steve Camp has a post about influential evangelical churches. Those with the apparatus for doing so felt it was important that we know WHO was WHO. First question: why? Second question: So what?

But then there are some good things that have passed by on my screen:

Phil Johnson wrote about the need for new reformers, and I blogged about it a few days ago. Tim Challies had a good post a few days ago that complements what Phil said.

I stumbled across a blog that exists to list the blogs and web pages of scholars. Here 'tis. You might be interested in some of these.

If anyone has the mistaken view that all of today's teens are deadheads, take a look at this young lady's blog. Keep it up, Laura!!

The other afternoon, I pulled our staff into my office and viewed one of my favorite Three Stooges episodes: An Ache in Every Stake. The boys are ice delivery men turned cooks and create total mayhem with good, clean fun. I suggest a good dose of the Stooges from time to time.

A New Reformation?

Phil Johnson's recent post on the state of Evangelicalism ended by saying, "We sure could use a new generation of Reformers." He's right, of course. I believe it was Howard Hendricks who said that Evangelicalism is 5 miles wide and 1 inch deep. And that was said years ago. I can't help but think that it is worse now.

We do need a new Reformation. I've thought a lot about that over the last few years. How might it happen?

First, we need to remember that the Reformation was a work of the Spirit, unique for its times. Can the Luther/Calvin/Zwingli (and a host of others) event happen again? Who knows? But it was a work of God's Spirit. Because of that, the most important thing that we can do it pray. And when we pray, we may find that we, like those who came before Luther and company, are planting seeds for a future harvest.

Second, we need to be faithful to Scripture. If we don't have 500 or 5000 people because Bible teaching is "boring," then so be it. Oh, not that we are to be boring. We are to be creative, engaging, relevant, personal. Afterall, Jesus embodied these qualities. But the message is unchanging. The meal we offer hungry people on the Lord's Day cannot be a clever quick-fix "how to" series. We need to teach the Scriptures, teach them through exposition, teach them sequentially (meaning that we don't skip from place to place each week).

Third, we need to urge greater commitment to the local Church. In many churches, we've gone from what was considered a legalistic approach to church attendance (Sunday AM, Sunday School, Sunday PM and Prayer Meeting) to a far more lackadaisical approach. I'm not saying that we need to go back to old forms. But we do need to call our people to be faithful. As I have been urging our folks, we need to see that being with with the Lord's people on the Lord's Day so that we can hear the Lord's Word is an essential, not just one of a number of options for Sunday. They need to understand that something is wrong with their hearts if they are not giving the Word of God the attention it deserves in their lives. Our particular model emphasizes Sunday morning, Sunday School and Small Groups. If we really believe that our people need to be taught, so that gathering together on the Lord's Day or in Small Groups are times for re-orientation and encouragement (among other things), then we need to let them know that we expect them to be there. Some will choose to not follow. Lead the ones who will. But when we meet, let's be sure that we feed them well.

Fourth, we need to preach the Gospel clearly. We've obscured the meaning of justification by faith by all sorts of nonbiblical terms from "invite Jesus into your life" and "surrender to Christ" to (for children) "ask Jesus to be your special friend." Are we smarter than the Spirit? Are we more clever, more articulate, better able to understand how to get through to people? We need to repent of false representations of the Gospel. And if you think I am being overly technical, survey your people and find out how many of them believe they are saved because of what they said, prayed, did (going forward). I read on someone's blog yesterday (sorry - I forgot where, so I can't give credit) about a woman who would bribe children with candy so that they would pray the sinner's prayer, and thereby be "saved." What a horrible, horrible thing to do. The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Let's explain it clearly and accurately. It is possible to do both.

Fifth, we need to warn our people when we see them endangered. We need to be able to point out error and wrong emphasis, but do so without the jealous rivalry and silly bickering that characterized (and apparently still can characterize) fundamentalism. We don't need witch hunts. If you have a problem with what Rick Warren says, articulate a biblical position against it, but let's leave his waistline and Hawaiian shirts out of the discussion. What do they have to do with anything?

Finally, we need to pray. I said that already. But we need it. I am so deficient in this, and in talking to many in ministry I know I am not alone. We need to pray for the state of the Church, but be confident that Christ is building His Church. We need to pray that God will raise up sound teachers. We need to ask God to mute the impact of those who have the ears of our people due to TV, radio and bestseller lists, if they are teaching what is not sound. We need to pray that God will work in the hearts of our people to lead them to a deeper commitment to the local church. We need to pray for each other, that God will keep us faithful, will help us to be growing, and that He will use us as His servants in this difficult day.

Perhaps God will use these things to bring needed Reformation and renewal to His Church. Maybe not. But Luther's reformation began in his heart. Let's let that be true of us.

Unregenerate Church Members

One of our Elders sent me an article by Jim Elliff about the Southern Baptist Convention. What he describes as a problem in the SBC (Southern Baptists: An Unregenerate Denomination) is likely common in most churches to one extent or another.

Our western evangelical culture relies heavily on a revivalist style that called people to outward profession of faith, and frankly, there can be problems with that. It should go without saying that it is entirely possible for people to pray a prayer, make a decision, go forward, etc. without having genuinely repented and been converted. Yet how many times haven't you heard someone base their assurance of salvation on an experience of profession?

A lot of this comes as the result of alleged childhood conversions. Can kids be saved? Sure. IF THEY CAN UNDERSTAND THE GOSPEL. But so often kids have been led through an experience of sorts. In fact, it is almost funny. Someone will say, "I accepted Christ when I was 5 but . . ." and I want to jump in and say, "let me finish - you didn't have any real change/you weren't sure/you couldn't remember what you did so you rededicated your life to Christ when you were a teenager and it was then that you started to follow Him." And that's the testimony of those who are probably genuine believers.

But what about those who are not? My wife was talking to a co-worker the other day about a young man who made a profession of faith years ago but shows no fruit. When she said something about his not being a believer, her co-worker was quite surprised. "Didn't he make a decision years ago?" Which means that the "decision" somehow got him "in." Let's face the fact that many - too many - people think this way. Kids grow up, leave the church, live like pagans, but Mom and Dad say, "Well, he made a decision when he was 10."

While addressing far more than childhood conversion issues, Elliff says that wrong thinking about conversion is rampant in the SBC. It's rampant in any church. So what do we do? Going through Romans 1-5 the past few months has given me an opportunity to address this from a number of angles on numerous occasions. I may have sounded like a broken record at times (or for you younger people, a scratched CD), but I don't care. There is something fundamentally wrong with us - especially those of us in the pulpit - if we don't understand the biblical Gospel and instead substitute an experience of some kind for genuine conversion.

Elliff says that there are five things that we have to begin to do:

1. We must preach and teach on the subject of the unregenerate church member.
2. We must address the issue of persistent sin among our members.
3. We should be more careful on the front end of church membership.
4. We must stop giving immedate verbal assurance to people who have made professions of faith or who respond to our invitations.
5. We must restore sound doctrine.

Each of these points is worth pondering.

I mentioned a resource the other week that we have used this summer. RC Sproul has a newer series of videos on Assurance of Salvation. It is excellent. I would recommend that you check it out. In fact, you can download the mp3's for $2 each (there are 6 of them) and preview his comments. The resource is described here.

Accepting the Word, part 2

Last post I quoted John Chrysostom, late 4th century pastor and bishop. He made a good observation about the need for the individual to work to apply the Word that is preached to them.

Let's face the fact that the average person-in-the-pew is trained in passivity. Not necessarily by us, but our entertainment culture teaches people to be observers rather than participants. I've blogged about this before in some ways, but I am increasingly feeling the need to help our people understand their role in the preaching/teaching process.

One of the things that I shared with our congregation this morning is that the sermon does not end when they go home. Ideally there ought to be some review time during the week in which they ask themselves some questions:

1. What was the point of the text that Peter preached on?
2. What changes need to take place in my life because of that text?
3. What is my role in bringing about those changes?

This is at least a starting point. I'm going to start putting something like this in our bulletin or at the end of the sermon outline that is in each bulletin so that there is clear communication that once they have received the Word (heard it), they need to accept it (process it). I think that is what Paul was thankful for when he commends the Thessalonian Christians in 1 Thessalonians 2:13.

The reality of our passive-entertainment culture says to me that we need to be regularly helping our people learn to listen and process. Making application of the passage is essential, helping them know how to take it the next step is just as essential.

Accepting the Word

This summer I'm preaching a series based on some of the exhortations and encouragements Paul provides to the Thessalonian Church. This week's text is 1 Thessalonians 2:13: "And we also thank God for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe."

Periodically I read through a devotional entitled Day By Day With the Church Fathers. Yesterday's entry contained this quote by John Chrysostom:

"For the Word is spoken to everyone and is offered as a general remedy to anyone who needs it. But each individual hearer must accept the remedy that is appropriate for his own ailment"

I think that Chrysostom captured the essence of the dynamic of preaching and of the hearer's responsibility in these two sentences. While our preaching targets certain responses, it really is up to the hearer to think about how the particular truths taught (what I think he means by a "general remedy") applies to his or her own "ailment."

This got me thinking about the fact that we take a lot for granted as pastors and teachers. I wonder if people are taught how to "accept the Word" and if our preaching would be more effective if we reminded our people from time to time about their responsibility and the ways we go about accepting the word. Certainly this transcends just hearing the word, which, as James says, is not the goal.

In the next few days, I want to blog a bit about this. Your comments, as always, are appreciated.