Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Have Bible Quoters Replaced Bible Readers?

Enlightening and alarming post that is a must read for every pastor and church leader from Russel Moore . . .

Most readers of this site will share my angst about biblical illiteracy. I think we sometimes assume, though, that this illiteracy is simply a problem in the broadest sweep of cultural Christianity. It is there, to be sure. That’s why Christian bookstores (or their digital equivalents) don’t sell many books on the meaning of justification in Galatians, but tons of books with diet tips from Ezekiel or channeled messages from heaven. The problem, though, is far bigger than that.

I’ve never really known how to identify the scope of the biblical illiteracy facing us until I read this past weekend a sentence that perfectly articulated what I had noticed, in David Nienhuis’ very helpful new book A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament (Baker). Speaking of the students in his college New Testament classes, Nienhuis writes that they struggle with the biblical material “because they have been trained to be Bible quoters, not Bible readers.”

He is exactly right.

Nienhuis locates part of the problem in the way higher criticism has sought to remove the Bible from the terrain of the church to the alleged expertise of those able to discern the “original context” in ways novel to the reading of the church through the ages. But the problem goes beyond this, he notes. The problem is also the way the Bible is used in churches.

“Some of my students attend popular non-denominational churches led by entrepreneurial leaders who claim to be ‘Bible believing’ and strive to offer sermons that are ‘relevant’ for successful Christian living,” he writes. “Unfortunately, in too many cases, this formula results in a preacher appealing to a short text of Scripture, out of context, in order to support a predetermined set of ‘biblical principles’ to guide the congregants’ daily lives. The only Bible these students encounter, sadly, is the version that is carefully distilled according to the theological and ideological concerns that have shaped the spiritual formation of the lead pastor.”

I would say the problem goes far beyond non-denominational churches, or even entrepreneurial churches, as biblical interpretation in American evangelicalism tends to be trickle-down, from the entrepreneurial ministry pioneers to everyone else.

Here’s the end-result according to Nienhuis: “They have the capacity to recall a relevant biblical text in support of a particular doctrinal point, or in opposition to a hot spot in the cultural wars, or in hope of emotional support when times get tough. They approach the Bible as a sort of reference book, a collection of useful God-quotes that can be looked up as one would locate words in a dictionary or an entry in an encyclopedia.”

He continues: “What they are not trained to do is to read a biblical book from beginning to end, to trace its narrative arc, to discern its main themes, and to wonder how it shapes our faith lives today.”

This is not a matter of the educated versus the uneducated. The same problem exists among both. I have noticed people who were experts in the grammar of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles who didn’t really get the flow of the old, old story. If the Bible, though, is God’s Word, and it is, we must raise up people who don’t merely believe the Bible but also who know what it says.

The answer is not easy. Part of the problem is what Nienhuis mentions, the modeling of the use of Scripture in some teaching and preaching. Part of the problem is the larger cultural question of whether the distracted, fragmented modern mind any longer has the attention span to read a text (meaning a literary text, as opposed to a text message). And part of the problem is that in order to train people to read their Bibles, the church must be gathered more than just an hour or two a week. To engage with a narrative requires (pardon this metaphor, my paedobaptist friends) not just a sprinkling but an immersion in the text.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Understanding the Four Soils

Referring to the parable of the sower, Craig Blomberg comments,
Many readers have wondered how to fit these four categories of individuals into the two categories into which Jesus has already made clear everyone falls (cf. 7:13–27; 10:32–42). The answer is actually fairly straightforward. The first three kinds of soils are all inadequate. None of them stands for people who were ever true believers, despite certain outward appearances. For farmers, only those plants that bear good fruit (“produced a crop,” v. 8) count for anything. True believers are thus only those who bear proper spiritual fruit (7:16–17). Of the rest Jesus says, “I never knew you” (7:23). What counts is not profession of faith but perseverance in faith. To be sure, all true Christians will persevere, but only by observing who perseveres can we determine who those true Christians are. Matthew’s climactic focus, however, remains on the astonishing impact of those who are faithful. Jesus provides his followers with an important reminder of God’s continued blessings on their work, even as large numbers of people become increasingly hostile to the gospel. He will make this point again in vv. 31–33.  NAC Matthew commentry. pp. 214–215.

Friday, November 16, 2018

The Holy Spirit and Discipleship

Jesus emphasized that the Holy Spirit is the key to discipleship. The spirit is the one who convicts unbelievers, regenerates believers, and causes growth. We must allow for the Spirit in all that we do while making disciples. Discipleship practices must rely on the work of the Spirit from beginning to end. And we cannot program the Spirit. Mike Wilkins, Following the Master, 121.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Eight Key Components for Multiplying Disciples in the Local Church

Ran across these necessary components pastors need to establish the DNA for multiplying disciples in their church.  Worth thinking about for any church leadership team.

  1. A pastor’s first priority is growing every member of the church to be a mature, reproducing disciple.
  2. Every person called to salvation is called to discipleship.
  3. The gospel expects all disciples to make other disciples.
  4. All ministry activities should be evaluated by their contribution to growing mature, reproducing disciples.
  5. The method should be Jesus’ way of personally making disciples who make other disciples.
  6. Success should be measured not by how many disciples are made, but by how many disciples are making other disciples.
  7. Our churches exist for making disciples, and disciples are God’s gift to the world.
  8. The ultimate goal of making disciples is world revolution. When the gospel is preached to all peoples, the end will come.  Conversion and Discipleship, Bill Hull, p 205.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Three Necessary Requirements for Pastors to Make Disciples in the Local Church

A disciple-making pastor has a vision to disciple every person in his church, a determination to make it happen, and a system for sustaining it.  ~ Patrick Morley.

Do you have a vision for making disciples in your context, the determination to make it happen, and a system to sustain it?

Friday, October 5, 2018

Book Review: How to Gow: Applying the Gospel to all of Your Life by Darryl Dash

I think most American pastors recognize that people showing up to church is not effective discipleship and struggle with how to effectively disciple those who attend their church.  Darry Dash is a seasoned pastor who understands that struggle and had the opportunity to develop a process for discipleship from the ground up while planting a church.  How to Grow: Applying the Gospel to All of Your Life is the fruit of that activity, a helpful book on the gospel and gospel growth.  In this review, I will give a brief summary of each chapter and offer my observations at the end.
The author starts out in chapter one by defining the gospel.  After a lengthy summary of the bible’s storyline, he summarizes the gospel with three simple truths: God is holy, humanity is sinful, and God is rescuing both his people and his creation through the work of Jesus Christ.  He then describes several implications for our lives. 
In chapter two, Dash considers spiritual growth, stating that we are designed for growth with the desire to grow that comes with believing the gospel.  He sees growth in a holistic sense, the gospel touching and spurring growth in every area of life.  Contending that spiritual growth is neither just self-help or amassing more information, but rather a radically grace driven transformation process, the restoring of the image of God in us as we are freed from sinful habits and desires. 
Chapter three addresses the often ignored role of desires or affections in spiritual growth, particularly joy.  Joy is not optional or secondary.  It is central to the christian life, finding our greatest delight in God.  Our pursuit of joy is our pursuit of God’s glory. 
Dash then looks at the stages of spiritual growth in chapter four, offering a growth pathway to spiritual maturity he has developed.  It was refreshing to see that one of those stages is making disciples or mentoring others.
In chapter five, while readily acknowledging the complexity of spiritual growth, this veteran pastor challenges Christians to master three basics as the basis for spiritual growth: knowing God, worshipping God, and obeying God.  He concludes the chapter by laying out the case for community being indispensable for spiritual growth. 
The author expands upon the role of habits for spiritual growth in chapter six.  He starts by addressing inadequate ways of pursuing growth through learning more, making bigger goals, and sheer willpower then gives a practical discussion on the role of habits in spiritual growth that puts us in the path of God’s grace.  This includes how they are formed and the necessity of creating good habits for spiritual growth.  This chapter is worth the price of the book. 
Chapter seven builds upon the three basics described in chapter five as the core habits for spiritual growth, bible reading, prayer, and worshipping with a church community.  The author gives sage advice on cultivating bible reading, prayer life, and involvement in a church community.
In chapter eight, Dash builds upon three core habits with six more supporting practices or habits.  These include the Sabbath, giving generously, serving others, sharing the gospel, caring for your health, and developing a rule of life.  For the unfamiliar, a rule of life is a guiding set of principles for your life to help you not only define but also live a productive, fulfilling, and God centered life.  I found his discussion on giving and sharing the gospel especially full of practical wisdom.  And his section on sharing the gospel centers around hospitality as a means of living on mission with the testimony of Rosaria Butterfield.
In the last chapter, the author challenges all Christians to engage in making disciples.  He argues that God calls all ordinary Christians to make disciples.
The book ends with three appendixes.  The first is a good list of recommended resources for growth.  The second is a guide on developing a rule of life as discussed in chapter eight.  The third appendix encourages pastors and church leaders to develop a culture for discipleship by being intentional about making disciples in the local church.  Lastly, the author shares briefly about his ministry, Gospel for Life, as a resource for that process.  If something he wrote piqued your interest, I recommend scouring the bibliography for additional reading!
As a pastor reworking our church’s own process for making disciples, How to Grow is helpful.  The author gives a theological foundation, often missing in books on spiritual growth and discipleship.  Yet he is also very practical.  Chapter summaries highlight the key points made, questions for reflection or discussion, and then suggestions for making application.  This book would be a good option for a discipleship group.
I will close with one minor concern.  The author recommends that those who identify as Christians but have no active or vital relationship with God to not settle for a such a nominal faith.  This seems to contradict chapter two where he argues that we are designed to grow and that faith creates desires within us.  It is possible that someone in this predicament may profess faith but not really possess faith (i.e. Mat 7:21-23; James 2:14-26).
You can get the book on Amazon.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Rethinking the Building of Community

From . . . 
They would rather communicate with their friends online than in person.
They don’t want to learn in groups.
They want to navigate life on their own and, if they need help, they want to get it when it is convenient for them. And through their phone.
All this and more come from numerous studies of late conducted on Generation Z, the most recent being from the nonprofit Common Sense Media. It’s a fast-changing landscape to monitor. For example, the percentage of young people who said their favorite way to talk to friends is face-to-face declined from 49% to 32% in just six years. As co-author and lead researcher of the Common Sense Media project Vicky Rideout mused: “You can’t help but say, ‘Is there something big going on here?’ – some fundamental shift in the way people will be communicating with each other in the future.”
The communication revolution is, to my thinking, self-evident. What is less discussed is the community revolution it reflects, and what that means for those of us invested in fostering community.
Quick: How do you build community in your church if people – particularly young people – don’t want to be in a small group and would rather interact with people online?
If you’re like most leaders, you’re at a bit of a loss. Which is why it’s time to rethink community. Not rethink its biblical dynamics, which are the established target on the wall, but rethink how best to lead people into biblical community. Particularly in terms of starting points.
Let me see if I can stretch your thinking a bit. Right now, there’s a group of apps that are exploding in popularity with Generation Z that allow a form of community and “hanging out” that has never been provided before. For example, the app Houseparty. It allows video chat with up to seven of your friends. When a couple of people open it and start chatting, a push alert that they’re “in the house” is sent to everyone they’re connected with. Soon, the room fills up. Such experiences have been made possible by the availability of video chat in messaging apps like Kik and Facebook Messenger, as well as standalone apps like Fam, Tribe, Airtime, ooVoo and Houseparty.
It’s been called “live chilling.”
Some are even calling it the new “third place.” Do you remember that phrase? There used to be only two places where you could engage community or take up social residence—your home and your work. A third place in the U.K. was always the local pub. In the U.S., Starbucks and other coffee shops became the “third place.” But now, apps like Houseparty are becoming the preferred third place.
Boomers went to their friend’s house after school or, as an adult, to a small group in a home. Generation X would call their friends on the phone after school. Millennials used AOL Instant Messenger and later text messaging to keep up with their friends. Generation Z is back to having a house party.
Only it’s through their phone.
Could that be a starting point for entrance to and experience of community? I don’t know why not. There would be two mistakes to make with our changing culture. One would be to insist on having all entrance and starting points reflect the end game of, say, discipleship or community. The opposite error would be to drop the target on the wall and lower our standards in such areas. Both would be mistakes. Instead, we need to keep the biblical target on the wall for such things as authentic community but innovate in terms of how best to stair-step them into it. Because you will have to stair-step them into it.
And who knows? If we do, perhaps the house party will lead to an even newer third place.
The vision of the new community inherent within the church.
James Emery

Betsy Morris, “Most Teens Prefer to Chat Online, Rather Than in Person,” The Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2018, read online.
Laura Pappano, “The iGen Shift: Colleges Are Changing to Reach the Next Generation,” The New York Times, August 2, 2018, read online.
“Beyond Millennials: The Next Generation of Learners,” Pearson, August 2018, read online.
Emily Drooby, “For Generation Z, ‘Live Chilling’ Replaces Hanging Out in Person,” USA Today/Buzz 60, February 20, 2017, watch online.

Friday, September 21, 2018

3 Privileges of Intimacy with the Father

From Gospel Coalition . . .

1. We can talk to God like a child talks to its father.

‘The Spirit . . . calls out, “Abba, Father” ’ (verse 6). The Spirit gives us the confidence to address God as our Father. We’ve a number of friends who have adopted children. And it’s always a special moment when the adopted child starts calling them ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’. God is infinite, holy, majestic. He’s a consuming fire before whom angels cover their faces. He made all things and controls all things. Can you imagine calling him ‘Father’? Of course you can! You do it every day when you pray–most of the time without even thinking about it. How is that possible? Step back and think about it for a moment, and you’ll realize what an amazing miracle it is that any of us should call God ‘Father’. But we do so every time we pray, through the Spirit of the Son. This is how John Calvin puts it:
With what confidence would anyone address God as ‘Father’? Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honor of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace in Christ? . . . But because the narrowness of our hearts cannot comprehend God’s boundless favour, not only is Christ the pledge and guarantee of our adoption, but he moves the Spirit as witness to us of the same adoption, through whom with free and full voice we may cry, ‘Abba, Father’.1
We cry out to God because the Spirit assures us that God is our Father and our Father cares what’s happening to his children.
Think of those adopted children saying ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ for the first time. What must that feel like for them? Perhaps they do so tentatively at first. They’re still feeling their way in the relationship. And that’s often what it’s like for new Christians, feeling their way in this new relationship. But think, too, what it means for the parents. It’s a joyful moment. It’s a sign that their children are beginning to feel like children. It’s a moment of pleasure. That’s how God feels every time you call him ‘Father.’ Remember, he planned our adoption ‘in accordance with his pleasure’ (Ephesians 1:5).

2. We can think of God like a child thinks of its father.

‘So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child’ (verse 7). Slaves are always worried about doing what they’re told or doing the right thing. They fear the disapproval of their master because there’s always the possibility they might be punished or sacked. Children never have to fear being sacked. They may sometimes be disciplined but, as with any good parent, it’s always for their good. God is the best of parents. And we never have to fear being sacked. You can’t stop being a child of God–you’re not fostered. You’re adopted for life, and life for you is eternal!
The cry ‘Abba, Father’ is not just for moments of intimacy. It was actually the cry a child shouted when in need. One of the joys of my life is that I’m good friends with lots of children. Charis always cries out, ‘Tim!’ when she sees me. Tayden wants me to read his Where’s Wally? book with him. Again. Tyler wants me to throw him over my shoulder and swing him round. Josie wants to tell me everything in her head all at once in her lisping voice. They all enjoy having me around. But here’s what I’ve noticed. Whenever any of them falls over or gets knocked, my parental instinct kicks in and I rush to help. But it’s not me they want in those moments. They run past me looking for Mum or Dad. They cry out, ‘Dad’, and Tim won’t do. That’s what ‘Abba, Father’ means. When we’re in need, we cry out to God because the Spirit assures us that God is our Father and our Father cares what’s happening to his children.

3. We can depend on God like a child depends on its father.

‘And since you are his child, God has made you also an heir’ (verse 7). When Paul talks about ‘sonship’, he’s not being sexist. Quite the opposite. In the Roman world only male children could inherit. So when Paul says ‘we’ (male and female, 3:28) are ‘sons’, he’s saying that in God’s family, men and women inherit. Everyone is included. And what we inherit is God’s glorious new world. But more than that, we inherit God himself. In all the uncertainties of this life we can depend on him. He will lead us home, and our home is his glory.
What could be better than sharing in the infinite love and infinite joy of the eternal Father with the eternal Son? Think of what you might aspire to in life–your greatest hopes and dreams. And then multiply them by a hundred. Think of winning Olympic gold or lifting the World Cup. Think of being a billionaire and owning a Caribbean island. Think of your love life playing out like the most heartwarming romantic movie. Good. But not as good as enjoying God.
Or let’s do it in reverse. Think of your worst fears and nightmares: losing a loved one, never finding someone to marry, losing your health, not having children. Bad! But Paul says, ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18). The only time Jesus is quoted as saying, ‘Abba, Father’ is in the Garden of Gethsemane as he sweats blood at the prospect of the cross. Even when you feel crushed by your pain, God is still your Abba, Father.
Where does joy come from? It comes from being children of God. How can we enjoy God? By living as his children. How can we please God? By believing he loves us as he loves his Son.
  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.20.36–37.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pastor, Don’t Be a Secondhander

Some great advice, especially for those new to ministry from Gospel Coalition . . .
Some of the best advice I ever received came from my seminary adviser. He warned me not to use a “bag of tricks” when I got into ministry. I understood what he was saying—in theory. Most pastors stay at a church for three to four years and then move on. One reason, he suggested, was that many pastors only have three years’ worth of sermons, ideas, and programs in their “bag of tricks.” When the pastor runs out, he simply moves on to another church and recycles everything again.
Certainly, it’s good to imitate others (1 Cor. 11:1), not only in lifestyle but in teaching as well (2 Tim. 2:23:10). When I was a new believer, there was a man I revered so much that I picked up some of his body language. I wanted to be like him because he knew the Lord deeply. I hope you have personally known someone worth imitating. I hope you have a life worth imitating.
But merely imitating—instead of owning and believing what we’re doing—is to put on the appearance that something is abiding deep inside of us. This certainly applies to the Christian life in general, but I’m specifically thinking of those in pastoral leadership. Having a “bag of tricks” is being a secondhander, and we must guard against it.
Here are three signs we’re at least bordering on being a secondhander.

1. We Preach Like Someone Else

Preaching is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to copy other preachers. I used to get mailings selling sermon series. But there’s no need any more: the web has all our favorite sermons. We listen to a few sermons, make an outline, add a personal story, and we’re done. Sadly, it’s common for pastors to copy sermons. In my preaching lab during seminary, three people delivered the same sermon. We steal and deceive while portraying ourselves as having studied and been molded by the passage.
This approach doesn’t take your congregation into account. The sermon is self-produced mimicry, not Spirit-produced exhortation. We fake cognitive and experiential knowing. We become like Hophni and Phinehas, priests and sons of the high priest, but “worthless men” who “did not know the LORD” (1 Sam. 2:12). May that never be said of us.
Secondhand ministry flows from secondhand knowledge of God.
Preaching must include studying both the text and also the people under your care. Is it okay to borrow an illustration we found helpful? Absolutely. Is it okay to make a general point from a sermon we recently listened to? Please do. But if, week in and week out, we rely so heavily on others that our own voice is silenced, we’re on the road to quenching the Spirit. Instead, let us cultivate a “well-instructed tongue, that we may know the word that sustains the weary” (Isa. 50:4).
A few years ago I found my old journals from college. Many included profound insights. I was shocked at what I knew! Then it hit me: These were copies of Matthew Henry’s commentary. I had copied them in the hopes of showing someone my insights. I was portraying a Puritan’s thoughts as my own. I had deceived myself.

2. We Stop Learning

As a pastor, how much should you read? Are you discouraged by the number of books others consume? The discipline of reading is vital—Paul continued throughout his whole life and ministry (2 Tim. 4:13). But what happens when the learning stops? We rely on what we learned 10 years ago, instead of knowledge gained the past 10 years. Our insights may be from our seminary professors, not from our own ongoing study and conversations. We also fail to grasp cultural trends around us and miss out on conversation partners only available in print.
What does learning mean for pastors who have no books? Thankfully, reading isn’t a magic bullet, nor is formal training. But we stall our discipleship if we don’t pursue learning as much as we’re able.

3. We Undermine How God Has Hardwired Us

One of my great blessings is knowing Christians around the world and seeing God’s diverse creativity on display. Our personalities are unique. We enjoy different things. Our modes of communication vary. By copying others, we undermine our own gifting. Being secure in who we are in Christ is of utmost importance. And being secure in how God has gifted us—and perhaps more importantly, not gifted us—matters as well.
We don’t need to force ourselves into roles we’re not made for. As Paul said, “The hand should not be jealous it is not a foot, nor should it try to be a foot (1 Cor. 12:12). God has given us the body of Christ, equipped for good works, gifted to serve each other for the increase of our mutual joy. Psalm 139 is not just for Mother’s Day. It’s an affirmation that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb in a multitude of ways. Let’s enjoy how he’s made us.

Truth Covering Falsehood

Secondhand ministry uses truth to cover falsehood. So burn the bag of tricks and never return to it. Secondhand ministry flows from secondhand knowledge of God. In taking this road, we become a caricature of what we had hoped to become. We imagine ourselves knowing far more that we do. I think of the end of C. S. Lewis’s Four Loves, as he reflects on his own experience of God:
God knows, not I, whether I have ever tasted this love. Perhaps I have only imagined the tasting. Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than any we have reached. If we describe what we have imagined we may make others, and make ourselves, believe that we have really been there.
As we continue learning from others, may we minister from Christian experience that is altogether firsthand.

Friday, September 14, 2018

10 Lessons I’ve Learned While Working on my PhD

An excellent post by Kevin DeYoung for those seeking more education.  I am working on a Doctor of Ministry and it is not nearly as strenuous as a Ph.D., it is a lot of work.  I can identify with many of the points he makes.  A couple are: serious scholarship takes serious time, there are perfect dissertations and there are finished ones, some people have forgotten more than you will ever know . . . 
After nine weeks out of the pulpit this summer and after almost five years enrolled as a part-time PhD student, I’m a few weeks away (Lord willing) from submitting my thesis.
All the heavy lifting is done. All that’s left (I hope) is proofreading, cleaning up the bibliography, and fixing any formatting issues. Once I submit, I still need to travel to the UK to defend my thesis, so I’m not spiking the football just yet. But as I wrap up my study leave and head back to the church, I thought it would be worthwhile to reflect briefly on what I’ve learned over the past years—not what I’ve learned about John Witherspoon (I can write more about that later), but what I’ve learned about, well, learning. While gaining mastery in a subject area is important, a good doctoral program should do more than grant an academic degree; it should help you become a better thinker, a better student, and maybe even a better person.
With that in mind, here are ten lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Serious scholarship takes serious time. I’ve written a number of books, but there is a big difference between popular-level writing and academic writing. I knew that in my head, but the last several years reinforced that conviction. A good popular-level writer might be able to crank out a chapter in a day. A good scholar might spend all day tracking down a single footnote. That’s why real scholarship is all about momentum. You can’t write a dissertation or a journal article or a serious monograph by grabbing 15 minutes here or there. Reading can be done in the cracks of life, but not the writing.
2. Don’t settle for abstractions. Early in my program I had to meet with a professor at the university to talk about my studies. It was one of those stressful meetings where you try to pretend that you know a lot about something you started reading about. The professor, whom I had never met before, sat in his dimly lit study with mounds of books and asked me in a serious British tone: “When did the Scottish Enlightenment begin?” I fumbled for an answer, saying something about the 18th century and David Hume or Thomas Reid or Francis Hutcheson. He cut me off. “The Scottish Enlightenment did not exist until 1900 when the term was first used by William Robert Scott.” The point: look at history on its own terms, not first of all by the big terms we’ve assigned to it.
3. Read the original text. The same professor gave me the sage advice to always read the original texts, and try to read them first. Secondary sources are invaluable, but my professor was right: often they are harder to understand that reading what the person in question actually wrote. I found this to be true. I’d read chapters of commentary on Frances Hutcheson and still be unclear of what he thought. Once I read him for myself, the clouds started to part. Read texts. Read texts. Read texts.
4. You know less than you think you know. Academic work can certainly puff up. We’ve all seen (and hopefully don’t resemble!) haughty doctoral students, or recent graduates, who are at great pains to let everyone know all that they know. But done properly, graduate studies should make you humble. Do I know more than when I started five years ago? For sure. Am I more aware of all I don’t know? Absolutely. I could tell you things about Benedict Pictet or Lord Shaftesbury or the Enlightenment or the Presbytery of Paisley or the Cambuslang Revival or the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America or a dozen other things you don’t know much about. But it wouldn’t take long to get to the end of my expertise on these subjects. Once you see top-notch scholarship, you realize you aren’t doing much of it! You do what you can in your specific (micro)field and stay humble about 10 million others things you don’t know.
5. The best scholars know more than you think they know. Scholarship is like any other area of humanity activity. There’s a bell curve. There are some bad scholars (who should quit their day jobs), a lot of hard-working scholars making a contribution here or there (most dissertations are utterly forgettable), and then there are the few at the top who set the conversation and reshape their field—Richard Muller in post-Reformation theology, Mark Noll in the history of evangelicalism, Richard Sher in 18th-century Scotland. And these are just a few names relative to my studies. It’s true: some people have already forgotten more than you’ll ever know.
6. But everyone makes mistakes, so get the facts for yourself. Having said all that, don’t assume the experts have it all right. And I don’t just mean their interpretations, which are always open to scrutiny. I’m talking about names, dates, and places. I found a number of honest mistakes from even the best scholars in my field (and I’m sure I made some too). Keep digging. Like Reagan said: trust but verify.
7. Good writers rule the world. Yes, a slight exaggeration. But only slight. Most students can’t write well, because most scholars don’t write well, because most people don’t write well, because writing is really hard. It’s one thing to read a lot and have a mastery of your material. It’s another thing to present your material in clear, accessible—let alone arresting—prose. To be sure, there is plenty of writing that gets assigned to us for one reason or another. But I can almost guarantee it: the writers who actually get read, and the writers you actually want to read, are writers who write well. Don’t settle for smart; work hard to communicate what you know in a way people can understand.
8. Perfectionism kills (and so does procrastination). Over the summer as people asked how my doctoral work was coming along, I often repeated the line someone told me early in the process—”There are two kinds of dissertations: perfect ones and finished ones.” That quip often kept me focused when I was tempted to spend half a day down an unnecessary rabbit trail. Of course, procrastination is the other problem that plagues most students, so I worked hard to fill out every form as soon as it was given to me, reply to every email as soon as I could, and to set realistic goals along the way that I wouldn’t let slide.
9. Learn to write with a word limit (and learn to teach with time constraints). Most dissertations have a fixed word/page count. This is, no doubt, to help the examiner who has no time (or interest) in reading 650 pages on the history of serif fonts in Ecuador. But the limits are also to help the student. What sounds like a blessing at the beginning of the process (“Hey, I don’t have to write more than this!”) will be your biggest struggle by the end of the process. Firm limits force you to be selective. You can’t say everything you want to say. You have to keep your argument moving. You have to digest, synthesize, and articulate your views, not simply chronicle what you are reading. Establishing boundaries for yourself (or for others) in writing and in speaking is one of the best ways to really grow as a thinker and teacher.
10. Doing history is about loving your neighbor. There are 10,000 things you can study, as a graduate student or as the proverbial lifelong learner. My doctoral work has been in history, and historians argue not just about history but about how to do history. Christian historians in particular argue about what it means to do “Christian history” or “history as a Christian.” For my part, I think my goal as a Christian historian is to love my neighbor as myself, and that includes my dead neighbors. That means I try to study others as I would want to be studied. If I were someone’s research project, I’d want that student to get to know me, to take me on my own terms before using me as an axe to grind, to talk about me in a way that made sense to me. Of course, others may be able to see things about ourselves that we miss. They may interpret things differently than we would. But still, the golden rule is a good goal. Work hard to understand your subject, just like you would want someone to work hard to understand you.
P. S. I know I haven’t said anything about choosing a program or what advice I would give people considering PhD work. I’ve gotten a lot emails over the past couple of years with questions about doctoral studies. I’ll try to write another post along these lines in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

On Shorter Preaching

A thoughtful blog by Kevin DeYoung, who preaches long for others who probably preach too long, including myself . . .

Let me get my caveats out of the way first.
Yes, I have preached my share of long sermons (more on that in a moment). I don’t do many 15-minute homilies. My last four sermons on the Christ Covenant website (as of Monday) were 43 minutes, 46 minutes, 46 minutes, and 36 minutes. I aim for 40 minutes, but I bet my average is closer to 45 minutes (as the small sample size suggests). So my own congregation may read this post and say, “Physician, heal thyself!”
Moreover, I realize that in some contexts, cutting five minutes would bring the sermon from 25 minutes to 20 minutes, or from 18 minutes to 13 minutes. That feels far too light a meal to feed God’s people a healthy diet of Scriptural truth. As John Stott famously quipped, “Sermonettes make Christianettes.”
I also understand that the “proper” length of a sermon is culturally conditioned. In some churches, it may take years to get them accustomed to 30 minutes, while other churches have plenty of practice with two-hour services and 60-minute messages. I’m not laying down an ironclad law.
Having said all that, I feel comfortable making the assertion that the majority of preachers in our conservative, Reformedish circles could safely cut their sermon length by five or ten minutes (or more) and be more effective because of it.
While guest preaching in a church several years ago I asked the senior pastor how long I should preach. He replied, “Five minutes shorter than you think.” He wasn’t trying to be mean. His advice was tongue-in-cheek. But it was also partly serious. He went on to add that he’d rarely heard a sermon that couldn’t have been better by being five minutes shorter.
That got me thinking: did my sermons really need to be 50 or 55 minutes? When I look back at old sermons I’m almost always amazed by how much I tried to cram into the sermon. That’s always been a weakness of mine. I try to give people the whole elephant. It’s not necessary. The good thing about preaching for many years to the same people is that eventually you’ll get to say the important things that need to be said. There’s no need to make a single sermon touch on anger and membership and the regulative principle and the glory of God and the atonement, even if the passage fairly applies to all those areas.
We honor good preaching in our circles. And we should. Preaching is the lifeblood of the church. There is no greater calling than to herald the riches of Christ. But good preaching is not the same as long preaching. We love to hear of the Puritan preachers who turned over the hourglass and settled in for a second hour of sermonizing. Many of our heroes from ages past preached long, dense, wonderful messages. What we forget is that those congregations often complained about those sermons too! The Dutch Reformed in the colonies tried (usually in vain) to restrict the Domine to only one hour in the pulpit.
More importantly, we overlook the fact that today’s congregations have books and podcasts and small groups and Sunday school classes and book studies and a host of opportunities to be instructed in the Word. The Puritans were preaching to many people who couldn’t read and who received all their Bible teaching from Sunday services (or pastoral catechizing). So a 30-minute sermon is not necessarily a capitulation to short attention spans. We live in a different time with different avenues for good Bible teaching.
Of course, there is no absolute rule to any of this. Like I said, earlier in my ministry I was drifting toward an hour. Now I’m around 45 minutes, aiming for slightly less. I think my preaching is better as a result. This isn’t about cutting corners in the study. Almost every pastor can testify that preaching for 35 minutes is harder than preaching for 50 minutes. Just like in writing, it takes more work to be concise. The sermons I usually feel the worst about are the ones that went too long. And normally they went too long because I didn’t do the necessary work ahead of time to prune, to focus, to cut out unnecessary repetitions, to scuttle dispensable digressions.
The hard reality is that I don’t think I’m good enough for 60-minute sermons every week. The freeing reality, however, is that I don’t have to go 60 minutes to preach an exegetically responsible, theologically rich, personally relevant, doxologically powerful sermon.
Here’s the bottom line: there’s no need to preach for an hour when 40 minutes will do. The truth is most people will be glad for a shorter sermon. The parents with children in the pew certainly will be. Your wife just might be too. And the nursery workers will rise up and call you blessed.

Friday, September 7, 2018

The Need for a Place to Be Honest About our Struggle with Sin

“Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Those who remain alone with their evil are left utterly alone. It is possible that Christians may remain lonely in spite of daily worship together, prayer together, and all their community through service—that the final breakthrough to community does not occur precisely because they enjoy community with one another as pious believers, but not with one another as those lacking piety, as sinners. For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner. Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community. We are not allowed to be sinners. Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious. So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact sinners.

However, the grace of the gospel, which is so hard for the pious to comprehend, confronts us with the truth. It says to us, you are a sinner, a great, unholy sinner. Now come, as the sinner that you are, to your God who loves you. For God wants you as you are, not desiring anything from you—a sacrifice, a good deed—but rather desiring you alone. “My child, give me your heart” (Prov. 23:26). God has come to you to make the sinner blessed. Rejoice! This message is liberation through truth. You cannot hide from God. The mask you wear in the presence of other people won’t get you anywhere in the presence of God. God wants to see you as you are, wants to be gracious to you. You do not have to go on lying to yourself and to other Christians as if you were without sin. You are allowed to be a sinner. Thank God for that; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Monday, August 20, 2018

When the Bible Becomes an App

A thoughtful blogpost on reading a paper bible versus reading from an app from Trevin Wax
A surprising statistic in research on Bible engagement among Americans is that more than 90 percent of regular Bible readers prefer print to digital. That percentage holds true even though more than 90 percent of Bible readers also indicate that they engage with the Bible on digital platforms and through an app. So, the trends show exponential growth in digital Bible engagement alongside a strong preference for a print Bible reading experience. (In case you’re wondering how those statistics hold up generationally, consider the fact that three out of four millennials say they prefer a print Bible.)

Needless to say, printed Bibles aren’t going away. But many pastors tell me that they’re showing up less often in the hands of congregants at church on Sunday. J. D. Greear, pastor of The Summit Church, says “open your Bibles” and “turn on your Bibles,” and has remarked at the change in years past from the rustling of paper as people flipped through the text to the soft white glow of people today accessing the Bible via their phones.

Does the Form of Your Bible Matter?

As a Bible publisher, I’m thrilled to see people engaging the Bible, whatever the format. That’s why our team devotes attention to multiple digital platforms while caring deeply for the value of printed Bibles. At the same time, I wonder if many Christians assume the format for a Bible is neutral, that it’s irrelevant where or how you engage with the Bible, so long as it’s the Bible you’re engaging. That assumption is wrong. The form matters, because it affects the way we encounter God’s Word.

Let’s set aside the question of Bible apps for a moment. Just consider two forms of the Bible in print. The first Bible is leather-bound with gilded edges and opens up to a beautifully designed single-column interior. The presentation of this Bible says something about the value of these words. The second Bible is a pocket New Testament with a tiny font. The presentation of this Bible says something about the accessibility and availability of Scripture. Both of these Bibles are the Word of God, but surely no one would say the format doesn’t matter. Both can be helpful. Both can be valid. (I use a leather-bound single-column Bible for my daily devotions, and I carry around a little New Testament in my shirt pocket so I can read occasionally throughout the day.) But surely the form matters, because the form says something.

The same is true for Bible engagement through various digital platforms. We encounter the Bible differently through an app than we do through a book. The question we must ask is: what is the difference, and does it matter?

Scrolls, Codices, and Books

The pragmatist waves off this kind of reflection and chalks up concern or caution about digital Bibles as being nostalgic for a different era in history. After all, books themselves were once inventions, and the widespread availability of Bibles in printed form did not exist until after the Reformation. Weren’t books an improvement over codices? And weren’t codices an improvement over scrolls?

These are good questions worthy of consideration. But the questions themselves make my point: there is a difference in encountering the Bible as a collection of scrolls versus picking up the Bible as one distinct book. Binding together all of the books of the Bible into a single volume, between two covers, makes a statement about the canon of Scripture and the unity of the story it contains. And the availability of the Bible to the masses certainly made a statement about the priesthood of all believers and lifted high the expectation that we could and should encounter Scripture on our own. My point, again, is that the form matters. The format influences our engagement of the biblical text.

Difference Between Online and Print

So, what is the difference between encountering the Bible as a printed book and accessing the Bible’s contents online or through an app? Are we likely to see the same kind of revolutionary effect for digital Bibles that the printing press had for printed ones? It’s hard to say. Whereas books replaced codices and codices replaced scrolls, it’s not clear that digital access will replace the printed text, especially since digital sales have stalled out for books in general and never really took hold with the Bible in particular.

Still, there is a difference in engaging the Bible online versus in print, and we should be aware of it. Jeffrey Siker’s book Liquid Scripture: The Bible in a Digital World lays out some of the ways our encounter with the Bible digitally can shape our approach to this book. “What happens when the Bible is simply one additional app on one’s smartphone or tablet?” he asks.

Siker’s treatment is not one-sided. He recognizes the possibility of significant new insights that may emerge from millions of people encountering the Bible digitally. At the same time, he wonders what problems the shift from print to digital could cause. A digital transition would be a mixed blessing, with several tradeoffs.


First, Sikes points to the research that shows screens to be best for surface reading and the skimming of texts, but not ideal for the kind of deep and meditative reading usually associated with the Bible. Reading well takes concentration, and most of our devices are filled with distractions that make comprehension harder. (Not all devices are created equal, of course, which is why a Kindle may lend itself to higher reading comprehension than, say, the iPhone.) Multitasking, another practice we’re accustomed to on our phones or computers, makes it harder to read the Bible online, especially if we are enticed by all the tools and helps available on our apps. The thing we love about a Bible app (its features and helps) can become the thing that keeps us from reading the Bible well. Research also shows that humans read differently on a screen than on paper, which is why exhaustive reading online is rare (no wonder we call it “browsing”!).

Take these challenges into the church service and the Bible on your phone can become an intrusion rather than a benefit. Sikes admits:

“My worship experience may be enhanced by the capacities of the Bible app on my phone, or these same capacities may distract and take away from the worship experience because I’m off in the Bible spaces they have constructed. . . . Rather than giving our full attention to our role in the worship life of our faith communities, we increasingly suffer from ‘continuous partial attention,’ a kind of peripheral attention wherein we have one eye and one ear on the so-called real world around us, and another eye/ear on the virtual world mediated via smartphones.”


Another loss when we move from the Bible in print to the Bible online is the sense of the Bible’s geography. When the Bible “loses its covers,” Sikes writes, it no longer has a beginning and end, a shape or geography, and we may slowly lose our knowledge of the contours of the text. We no longer know our way around the Bible because we’ve never needed to have internal, mental maps. We can get to any place in the Bible in an instant.

The technological gain leads to a loss of intimate familiarity.


The format of Bible engagement matters. What is helpful in one encounter may hinder in another. Sikes quotes Christine Rosen on how different a book is from a screen:

“You enter the author’s world on his own terms, and in so doing get away from yourself. Yes, you are powerless to change the narrative or the characters, but you become more open to the experiences of others and, importantly, open to the notion that you are not always in control. In the process, you might even become more attuned to the complexities of family life, the vicissitudes of social institutions, and the lasting truths of human nature. The screen, by contrast, tends in the opposite direction. Instead of a reader, you become a user. Instead of submitting to an author, you become the master. The screen promotes invulnerability.”

Apply this to Bibles, and the practice of submitting yourself to a text—to something that is intended to master you instead of you master it—becomes even more important. How will our view of the Bible change if our primary encounter with it is on the same device from which we exert so much control and manipulation of our self-image?

Bibles Online, Yes. But Not At the Expense of Print

To be clear, I’m not opposed to Bible apps. I use them. I benefit from them. I’m excited to use the different tools and study helps available online. Engaging the Bible this way has aided me in study, in devotional exercise, in accessibility, and in sermon preparation. I am pro-Bibles-online.

But I’m not pro-Bibles-online as a replacement for engaging the Bible in print. The form of digital engagement is not neutral, and we need to be aware of the losses we will experience if we shift to online Bible reading as the primary or only way we encounter the Bible in the future. Aspects of engaging the Bible as a printed book are lost when we only and always turn on the Bible instead of open it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Clarifying The Active and Passive Obedience of Jesus Christ

[We cannot] allocate certain phases or acts of our Lord’s life on earth to the active obedience and certain other phases and acts to the passive obedience.

The distinction between the active and passive obedience is not a distinction of periods. It is our Lord’s whole work of obedience in every phase and period that is described as active and passive, and we must avoid the mistake of thinking that the active obedience applies to the obedience of his life and the passive obedience to the obedience of his final sufferings and death.

The real use and purpose of the formula is to emphasize the two distinct aspects of our Lord’s vicarious obedience. The truth expressed rests upon the recognition that the law of God has both penal sanctions and positive demands. It demands not only the full discharge of its precepts but also the infliction of penalty for all infractions and shortcomings. It is this twofold demand of the law of God which is taken into account when we speak of the active and passive obedience of Christ. Christ as the vicar of his people came under the curse and condemnation due to sin and he also fulfilled the law of God in all its positive requirements. In other words, he took care of the guilt of sin and perfectly fulfilled the demands of righteousness. He perfectly met both the penal and the preceptive requirements of God’s law. The passive obedience refers to the former and the active obedience to the latter.  John Murray, Redemption -Accomplished and Applied, pp. 20-22.

Jesus' “passive” and “active” obedience were lifelong aims as he fulfilled both the demands and suffered the penalties of God’s law, both of which culminated in the cross.