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