31 May 2011

Grr

by Dan Phillips

My dear wife and I had an absolutely terrific (if blindingly fast) weekend, and I probably have some great pictures to show you... but not now. Grr.

Valerie and I hit the road around 4:30 Thursday afternoon. I'd been up since 0-dark-30, but was powered by some characteristically wonderful Peet's coffee (best coffee on Earth — seriously). We headed down south to  have our first Pyro board meeting since T4G08.

Fast-forwarding, Valerie and I had a wonderful time with the Turks and the Johnsons, and with all their delightful assorted kids and spouses and grandkids; we also saw my sister, as well as longtime friend and best-man Tom Lusby, took a lot of pictures... and I've nothing to show for it.

Well, not yet anyway. Since I'm not a Mac user, I'm not accustomed to horrendous hardware problems requiring special trips to special stores, so this is a little new to me. My camera suddenly won't turn on, and I can't get my Gateway to read the card. Shyam's initial attempts at helping me were also unsuccessful, and then I was out of time.

So I'm stuck, with nothing to show but memories (which don't post as graphics). Not yet, anyway.

Other people took pictures. Frank's dear wife did, the friendly folks at Grace to You did. I did too... but, me? I've got nothing.

Grr.

Well, okay, that's not entirely true. I have a few from my iPhone. But you can't possibly care about them. Still... since I've got nothing....

Here's the sundae I had at Rocky Cola cafe with our friends the Lusbys:


Yes, it was also a temporary vacation from Dr. Atkins. Back on the wagon now. Also, we were reportedly sitting at the very booth that the guy who was president before George W. Bush sat at when he came through. Brr-r-r.

And here's me with a cola Fred Butler recommended from Galco's, a really amazing soda shop featured in the video that was the sixth item on the Hither and Thither of 6/4/10. I am really grateful to Fred for reminding me of this store — I'd have forgotten, and kicked myself for it. They have a dizzying variety of sodas. We got the rose petal soda (delicious), several root beers for our kids as well as treats for in-town relatives, and I got a dandelion and ginger soda (also delicious).



Sorry. It's lame. I know it. But that's all I've got right now.

Grr!

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27 May 2011

On Eloquence in Preaching

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson

The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt, nearly a week late, is from the lecture "Sermons—Their Matter," in Spurgeon's famous book Lectures to My Students.



ake care that your deliverances are always weighty, and full of really important teaching. Build not with wood, hay, and stubble, but with gold, silver, and precious stones.

It is scarcely needful to warn you against the grosser degradations of pulpit eloquence, or the example of the notorious orator Henley might be instanced. That loquacious adventurer, whom Pope has immortalized in his "Dunciad," was wont to make the passing events of the week the themes of his buffoonery on week days, and theological topics suffered the same fate on Sundays. His forte lay in his low wit and in tuning his voice and balancing his hands. The satirist says of him, "How fluent nonsense trickles from his tongue."

Gentlemen, it were better never to have been born, than to have the like truthfully said of us; we are on peril of our souls bound to deal with the solemnities of eternity and with no earth-born topics.

There are, however, other and more inviting methods of wood and hay-building, and it behoves you not to be duped by them. This remark is necessary, especially to those gentlemen who mistake highflying sentences for eloquence, and latinized utterances for great depth of thought. Certain homiletical instructors, by their example, if not by their precepts, encourage rhodomontade and great swelling words, and, therefore, are most perilous to young preachers.

Think of a discourse commencing with such an amazing and stupendous assertion as the following, which by its native grandeur will strike you at once with a sense of the sublime and beautiful: "MAN IS MORAL." This genius might have added, "A cat has four feet." There would have been as much novelty in the one information as the other.

I remember a sermon by a would-be profound writer which quite stunned the reader with grenadier words of six-feet length, but which, when properly boiled down, came to as much essence of meat as this—Man has a soul, his soul will live in another world, and therefore he should take care that it occupies a happy place. No one can object to the teaching, but it is not so novel as to need a blast of trumpets and a procession of bedizened phrases to introduce it to public attention.

The art of saying commonplace things elegantly, pompously, grandiloquently, bombastically, is not lost among us, although its utter extinction were "a consummation devoutly to be wished." Sermons of this sort have been held up as models, and yet they are mere bits of bladder which would lie on your finger-nail, blown out until they remind you of those coloured balloons which itinerant dealers carry about the streets to sell at a halfpenny a-piece for the delectation of the extremely juvenile; the parallel, I am sorry to say, holding good a little further, for in some cases these discourses contain just a tinge of poison by way of colouring, which some of the weaker sort have found out to their cost.

It is infamous to ascend your pulpit and pour over your people rivers of language, cataracts of words, in which mere platitudes are held in solution like infinitesimal grains of homœopathic medicine in an Atlantic of utterance.

Better far give the people masses of unprepared truth in the rough, like pieces of meat from a butcher's block, chopped off anyhow, bone and all, and even dropped down in the sawdust, than ostentatiously and delicately hand them out upon a china dish a delicious slice of nothing at all, decorated with the parsley of poetry, and flavoured with the sauce of affectation.

C. H. Spurgeon


26 May 2011

Hermeneutics: it's not life or death... right? (Classic re-post)

by Dan Phillips
This post from 2006, very slightly edited, seems particularly timely in the light of recent events, and in the light of stories like this and this. Could any Christian leader say "Oh well, stuff happens"?

"Hermeneutics" (plural in form, but used with both singular and plural verbs) is the art and science of Biblical interpretation. It's the set of rules, held consciously or not, that govern the way you read the Bible. You have a hermeneutical construct, I have a hermeneutical construct. It may be pretty darned good, it may be smelly-awful wretched, but you and I have one.

How one arrives at his hermeneutical position may very well be a chicken/egg conundrum. Does [your-favorite-reprobate's-name-here] read his Bible the way he does because of his appalling lifestyle? Or does he have an appalling lifestyle because of the way he reads his Bible? Or is the relationship symbiotic, co-dependent?

In my case, doubtless there was symbiosis, but mostly it was the former. I was in a cult called Religious Science, or the Science of Mind. I won't honor it with a link. I was New Age before New Age was cool. Back then we called it "New Thought," though it was barely either. (If you've ever sung "Let There Be Peace On Earth," you've sung a song cherished by that cult.)

It was your standard panentheistic Christian heresy, very like Christian Science except we weren't so negative on seeing doctors. Fundamentally, Religious Science taught that God is in all things, and expresses Itself as and through all things. Therefore, we are all expressions of God, and all have within ourselves the Christ-consciousness. "Christ" is the principle of god-consciousness, the I AM, within everyone. Our goal in life was to harmonize our minds with God, and thus to manifest truth, love, joy, stuff.

Dizzy yet?

Now, like most American cults, Religious Science wants to get on the Jesus-bandwagon by mouthing great platitudes about Jesus, how He was a great prophet, a great teacher, a great mystic, the most perfect manifestation of God-consciousness to date. But Jesus was no different than we, and we can all live the same life.

Stay with me, I am going somewhere with this.

The Religious Scientist runs into the problem that Jesus did not say much that sounded like any of that.

And that's where hermeneutics comes in. See (we said) the problem is that Christians have misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus all this time. They took His words too literally and shallowly, when really they had a deeper, spiritual meaning. When He said to pray, "Our Father," He was saying that all without distinction are God's children.

So what about Hell, sin, salvation? No problem; Hell is just the experience of being at seeming disharmony with the One Mind; sin are thoughts out of harmony with the One Mind; salvation is just reaffirming and manifesting your union with the Godhead. See?

Now, the tale of my conversion, and of why I am still a Christian, is a much longer yarn than I will untangle here, except to focus on one aspect: how the Holy Spirit used hermeneutics to convert and save me. (The fuller story is told starting here.)

I learned to read the Bible the Religious Science way from my pre-teen years. I looked for (and found) the "deeper meaning" that those idiot Christians and Jesus-Freaks kept stubbornly missing. It was a mindset, on the level of the reflexive.

But I did keep running into things that He said that jarred even my firmly-set grid. It created a slowly growing tension: on the one hand, we thought Jesus was the greatest Teacher and Prophet and Mystic who ever lived; on the other, He sure expressed Himself poorly sometimes! But never mind; we were always there to "help" Him.

The single greatest snag was John 14:6 -- "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

Sure sounds as if Jesus was saying what we Religious Scientists all denied: that no relationship with God is possible without a personal relationship with the person, the man, God incarnate, Jesus Christ.

But that isn't what we thought He meant. It couldn't be. It would destroy the whole foundation and superstructure. Here is how Ernest Holmes, founder of that cult, explains Jesus' words: "We cannot come unto the Father Which art in Heaven except through our own nature." So, what Jesus really meant was the precise opposite of what He seemed to be saying.

That worked fine for me, for a good long while.

But over the period of many months, the Spirit of God did a work on me, convicting me of sin, exposing to me my actual distance from actual God, my God-un-likeness, the multilevel trainwreck that was me.

When I combined the realizations that I basically had found a religion that told me what I wanted to hear, and that I myself wasn't much better than a drooling idiot in the ways that mattered, it shook me to my foundations — and I started looking at Jesus anew. And I prayed, that God would show me the way to Himself, even if it meant that I had to become a Jesus Freak. (That was the worst thing I could think of at the time.) What did I have to do?

And again loomed John 14:6, giving me Jesus' answer to my question.

This was the great Teacher, the great manifestation of God, Jesus, clearly laying out the only way I could come to God. But what did He mean? Did He mean that I was my own way to God (with Religious Science)? Or did He mean that I needed to believe in and know Him, Jesus, personally (with the Jesus Freaks)?

I had no idea, but at that point my very life was hinging on a hermeneutical question.

Here's the line of thinking that the Spirit of God used to deliver me from the deceptive maze of mystical subjectivism.

I took the premise that Jesus was the greatest Teacher, and assumed that a good teacher is a good communicator. He says what he means; his words convey his meaning. He speaks to be understood by his audience.

So then I simply posed this question question to myself: "If Jesus had meant to say that each of us is, within himself, his own way to God, could He have said it more clearly?" To put it differently, do these words best express that thought? The candid, inescapable answer was an immediate No. In fact, if that had been what Jesus had meant to say, He could hardly have phrased it more poorly... in which case He wasn't much of a teacher at all, let alone the greatest ever.

Then I asked myself this: "If Jesus had meant to say that He Himself personally is the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one can have a relationship with God apart from relating to Jesus Himself, could He have said that more clearly?" I was forced to admit that, in fact, that thought is exactly what these words most naturally express. (Later I was to learn that the Greek original underscores this very point all the more emphatically.)

That was a turning-point. I had to face the fact that Jesus did not believe what I believe. Jesus did not think God could be known as I thought He could be known.

And that, in turn, threw the question to the decisive fork in the road: who is more credible? Jesus, or me?

Had you said "Hermeneutics" to me at the time, I might have responded, "Herman-who?" Had you further said "Grammatico-historical exegesis," I couldn't even have managed that much. But that is precisely what was going on.

Now it's well over thirty years later, I've taken classes in Hermeneutics on the master's and doctoral level, read books and articles, written on the subject, fleshed out and used an array of principles of interpretation. But still that single method, that simple question (along with its implications), has resolved more knotty issues for me than any other. It's why I'm an inerrantist. It's why I'm a Calvinist. It is at the root of my core convictions. In fact, at bottom, in the hand of God it is why I am a Christian.

As I've fleshed it out, it is simply a formulation of Hebrews 1:1-2a. The Bible is God's unfolding Word, and it is God's Word to us. He speaks to be heard, and understood. Hence its meaning is not a matter for secret-club decoder-rings, arcane rituals, and secret councils composed of a different class. It is to be understood according to the normal canons of language.

Does that matter? It sure matters to me.

It's what the Lord used to save me.

UPDATE: this post dovetails to a degree.

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24 May 2011

Humiliated and humbled: sadly, not synonyms

by Dan Phillips

Once there was a man with much to boast of; and boy, did he.

The man was builder/conqueror/despot Nebuchadnezzar. A dream, brought home by a genuine prophet, had warned him of the consequences of his arrogance and called him to humble himself before God (Dan. 4:2-27). Nebuchadnezzar shrugged off the prophet's pleas and doubled down (Dan. 4:28-33). The king was instantly humiliated by a word from Heaven, and spent seven periods of time (?; don't ask) living like an animal (Dan. 4:32-33), until he saw himself in true proportion to God (Dan. 4:34-36). Now Nebuchadnezzar wasn't so big, but God was.

In this case, Nebuchadnezzar was both (outwardly) humiliated, and (inwardly) humbled. That is, God undid him, and he received the message. It's actually a pretty happy story. Many believe ol' Nabu-kudurri-usur was saved through the encounter. Possible. Only God knows.


Too many of the similar stories I know, first-hand and second-, do not yet have such happy endings.

I know of a number of folks who have been massively and/or repeatedly humiliated, but never humbled. I could name politicians past and present, preachers past and present, religious bodies past and present, and individuals past or present. I could name a name leading the news recently. Some of these folks I've never met; some I knew (or thought I knew) as well as I will ever know anyone who isn't me.

In each case, the natural process of following (sinful) choice A led to (foolish) choice B, which then led to disaster. Anyone with two functional neurons to fire in sequence, observing the situation, could make the connection: A led to B; A is the root-problem. Humble yourself. "Own," then disown A.

But, see, children, here's a crucial axiom of fallen humanity. It should probably be added to the 25 Things I've Learned (which seem more timely than ever)... though that would mess up the title. But here it is:
Everyone caught in a sin will either repent, or double down
Sin snowballs.

There's only one way to be rid of a sin, and that way lies through repentance. Repentance is the way of humility. Repentance loves God, so it hates the sin. Repentance sees God as big, so it sees the sin as despicable. Repentance admits culpability, because it craves forgiveness — and only guilty people can be forgiven. Hence the need for "owning" — for confession — and for "disowning" through repentance.

By contrast, refusal to be rid of the sin inexorably takes one in the other direction. All defenses go up, and all assailants must be repulsed. Rationalization, blame-shifting, evasion, equivocation, lies, excuses... all these and many other baleful tools lie in the arsenal of the unrepentant.

Solomon's words, however, stand as true today as they were when first spoken and written:
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy
(Proverbs 28:13)
...and its companion warning:
One who becomes stiff-necked, after many reprimands
will be shattered instantly— beyond recovery
(Proverbs 29:1 CSB)
The lesson to us is clear: we should humble ourselves, lest we be humiliated. "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you," Peter admonishes (1 Pet. 5:6).

Refuse to do so, and we will learn Nebuchadnezzar's lesson: that "those who walk in pride he is able to humble" (Dan. 4:37).

The fall back lesson is no less clear: if it comes to humiliation, take the message to heart. Don't be the last to know. Don't wait until the two saddest words in the English language become your epitaph:

"Too late"

UPDATE: see also this.

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23 May 2011

Chew on this

by Phil Johnson



'm on the way home from Boston this morning and don't have the time or the technology to write a proper blogpost. I can't even get the normal weekend Dose 'o' Spurgeon post online (I'll do it this afternoon, Lord willing).

So for today's post I'm going to point you to this article, which is the best piece I've seen from a secular source on the Harold Camping debacle. It's a sad story. It's a classic example of why false doctrine is so dangerous. And it's a good reminder that the Battle for the truth is one we ought to take more seriously than we sometimes do.

Talk amongst yourselves.

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22 May 2011

Camping's way out

by Dan Phillips




Reader Joe Cassada took an idea I proposed, brought his willingness and abundant talent, we collaborated some more, and the result is above. Meant to be read along with the previous posts.

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19 May 2011

Harold Camping glorifies God: seventeen ways

by Dan Phillips
NOTE: this is a companion-piece to Harold Camping is not a false prophet.
It is tempting to write "Inadvertently, unintentionally, and by means of contrast" — and let that suffice. However...


First, Harold Camping glorifies God because all things are God's servants (Psalm 119:91). Camping can't not glorify God. You can't not glorify God. You will either glorify Him as His servant, or as His tool; but you will glorify him (cf. Isaiah 10:5-16).


Second, Harold Camping glorifies God because, by his refusal to repent for past false guesses and his insistence on "doubling down" and putting all his weight on yet another guess, he illustrates God's wisdom in warning us: "Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool who repeats his folly" (Proverbs 26:11).

Third, Harold Camping glorifies God, because his arrogant false claim to knowledge he does not and cannot possess spotlights the humble truthfulness of Jesus, who confessed that "concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," and then admonished us "Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come" (Mark 13:32-22).

Fourth, Harold Camping glorifies God because his repeated false guesses about the future throw God's exhaustive knowledge of the future — and inerrant declaration of the same through His genuine prophets — into stark and splendorous relief (Isaiah 41:22-23; 44:7; 46:10; Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

Fifth, Harold Camping glorifies God because, by his repeated predictions despite past humiliation and exposure, he bears out God's wisdom in warning that you can "Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him" (Proverbs 27:22).

Sixth, Harold Camping glorifies God because he bears out the critical importance of James' God-breathed warning, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness" (James 3:1).

Seventh, Harold Camping glorifies God because he spotlights God's wisdom in structuring the local church as an organization led by men who first had to show and prove themselves as being capable of humbly receiving instruction from other men (2 Timothy 1:13; 2:1-2; 3:10-17; Titus 1:9), and as not being self-willed and schismatic (Titus 1:7).

Eighth, Harold Camping glorifies God because he highlights the wisdom of God in warning church leaders to be on the lookout for self-absorbed schismatics, and to give them the boot if they won't accept correction (Romans 16:17-18; Titus 3:10-11).

Ninth, Harold Camping glorifies God because, by ignoring God's Word and thus falling into atrocious folly, he commends the wisdom of God in repeatedly warning us to hear and heed counsel, rebuke and instruction from others (Proverbs 5:12-13; 10:17; 11:4; 12:1; 15:10, 22; 24:6).

Tenth, Harold Camping glorifies God by providing a living illustration of the horrendous result of ignoring God's warnings against being wise in one's own eyes (Proverbs 12:15; 26:12).

Eleventh, Harold Camping glorifies God by providing a living illustration of the horrendous result of an arrogant isolationism (Proverbs 18:1).

Twelfth, Harold Camping glorifies God by providing a living illustration of the horrendous result of forsaking a primary focus on preaching Christ and His Gospel (1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:1-11; Colossians 1:27:29).

Thirteenth, Harold Camping glorifies God by providing a living illustration of the horrendous result of ignoring Paul's God breathed warning that each of us should not "think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Romans 12:3).


Fourteenth, Harold Camping glorifies God by providing a living illustration of the horrendous result of ignoring Paul's God breathed warning against those who "have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions" (1 Timothy 1:6-7), and why God moved him to say it was necessary to shut the mouths (epistomizein) of such men (Titus 1:11).

Fifteenth, Harold Camping glorifies God by providing a living illustration of the horrendous result of ignoring Paul's God breathed warning against those who have a sick obsession with divisive trivia (1 Timothy 6:3-4)

Sixteenth, Harold Camping glorifies God by showcasing the wisdom of God in directing local churches to shut down schismatics who obsessively major on minors and promote speculation rather than edification (1 Timothy 1:3-4).

Seventeenth, Harold Camping glorifies God by how his hopelessly (and oft-rebuked) muddled hermeneutics  highlights the perspicuity of Scripture and the validity of a normal, grammatical historical theological approach — so much so that Christians of all traditions are publicly affirming the clarity of the dominical word,  "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. ...Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (Matthew 24:36, 42).

In this ways, for a starter, Harold Camping does glorify God. Unintentionally, unconsciously, and in spite of himself.

SEE ALSO: Harold Camping, the true Gospel, and hedged bets

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18 May 2011

Open Letter to a Military Family

by Frank Turk

My Dear Friends and Citizens,

This year my son turns 12, and he's getting big -- as big as his mom for sure right now, but pretty soon as big as I am (except, to paraphrase Paul, without the spare tire). A couple of weeks ago, a friend of ours was injured seriously in Afghanistan during military service, and he's only 18 -- but I can remember when he was my son's age. I can remember when he was a kid trying to figure out what it means to be like the men he admired, and how to be a man like his (adopted) father. I can see a lot of what he was in my son now.

So when that young man was a headline in our hometown, it was more than news to me. In my mind, there was a story there of someone who loves his family, and his church, and his small town, and his nation, and he volunteered to go off to serve his country in what the Bible calls the ministry of the sword.

Now, maybe the military institutions themselves today would not use those words. Maybe they have forgotten how. But the small towns and churches who nurture and grow the young men who staff the services have not. There is a great and godly dignity to want to serve your fellow man and your nation by giving up your own life and freedom for the sake of preserving home and hearth.

And when these young men put themselves in this service, and they go out in a uniform, and they are equipped with implements of death far more devastating than a sword, we see them as something a little larger than life -- when they are not our son. When they are our son, we know what it means to pray to God that he forgive their sins and protect them from evil. We know what it means to have those in whom, whether we meant to or not, we have placed out hope for the future march into the maw of conflict to be the final solution when evil men live lawlessly. The grand words for it all sort of shrivel up when it's our son who has to be the first one into the breach.

So today I am thinking about my son, who is getting big. And he's making me think of your son, who got big, and gave up his life for you, and yours, and mine.

Today, as I tuck in my son, I am grateful for your son. I cannot repay you for him, but I will live here and now with the solid reminder of what he did. God bless you, and keep you, and may his face shine upon you. I will spend this weekend remembering.







17 May 2011

The World-Tilting Gospel available for pre-order... in case, you know, you're interested

by Dan Phillips

You will, I hope, forgive me this:

For anyone who cares, you can pre-order a copy of The World-Tilting Gospel (set for release August 1, 2011) by some no-name, online.


I know of the following locations:
August 1 seems like a long way off to me.

So now, in the hopes of having something of interest or value for everyone, a flurry of variouses:
  1. Thank you to Phil, without whose generosity I'd not have the megaphone of this blog, nor the opportunity of reaching still further with the message of this book.
  2. Thank you to Frank, for accepting it as his personal ministry to make sure none of this (or anything else) goes to my head. And for being an example of sharp, incisive, Gospel-aimed thinking and writing.
  3. Thank you to all of you, our readers. That's you! You gave the initial announcement of this book a welcome I'll never forget. (In fact, I'm developing one of those titles into a book-proposal.) And then your voices were very helpful in picking the cover for the book.
  4. Let me flog that one just a tad more: please know that I don't take any of your kind words for granted, or your encouragement or your prayers. You have been very cheering, very generous. I can't express how frighteningly humbling it is each time someone says she or he has pre-ordered a copy, sight-unseen, not having read so much as a word or a single review. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
  5. Thank you to my generous endorsers, who took the time to look the book over and offer their verbal thumbs-ups: Phil Johnson, Lig Duncan, Jim Hamilton, Chris Brauns, Rob Plummer, Brian and Janet Rickett, and this one other guy... oh, what's his name? Preacher. Kills me that I can't think of it...  Oh well, it'll come to me. You may never have heard of him anyway. Regardless, their endorsement is eloquent testimony to their generosity and graciousness, and I am in their debt.
  6. The book has other thanks inside as well, as you'll see in August, DV.
This process has been a real education. When Brian Thomasson approached me to propose a book, years ago, he suggested maybe basing something on the post on sarkicophobia. So I went there, took that, and stepped back for a broader look, framing that post in terms of the Gospel. But that "broader look" led me to something I had heard David Wells say years earlier, about the reason why the Bible did not start at John 3:16, but at Genesis 1:1.

Thus was born the core idea of the book: framing the Gospel in terms of the whole Bible, beginning at the beginning, tracing our way through God's plan of the ages in Christ, right down to the personal, street-level connection and impact of our salvation and life in Christ.

And that's how a ~1300-word post turned into a ~300-page book.

Some other time, I'll tell you a bit more about the journey from idea to book.

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16 May 2011

Nothing But Toil and Trouble

A Meditation on Psalm 90
by Phil Johnson

A Prayer of Moses, the man of God. Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust and say, "Return, O children of man!"
4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning:
6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed.
8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
10 The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
11 Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?
12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
13 Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants!
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.
16 Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!


egarding the shortness and misery of this life, Moses wrote, "All our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:9-10).

This is a common theme in Scripture: our days are few and full of trouble (Job 14:1). In case you have wondered, it's not just you; we all experience misery and affliction. That's the nature of earthly life. The earth itself is cursed. Moses gives a nod to that fact in the phrase "all our days pass away under [God's] wrath." In the King James Version, the second half of that verse says, "We spend our years as a tale that is told." The Hebrew expression actually means, "We finish our years like a groan."

That's true, isn't it? Life ends with a groan. The end of life is like an extended sigh of pain. Life doesn't generally get more pleasant as we get older; in fact, it typically works the other way: life gets harder and more trouble-filled. At the end you die, and if you're "fortunate" to live long enough to die of old age, the end of your life will be like a drawn-out sigh. Meanwhile, this life is filled with moaning and affliction. All nature groans (Romans 8:22-23).

That reality leads Moses to reflect on the reality of divine wrath against sin. Moses, you recall, had sinned by losing his temper at Meribah in front of the whole nation. There was no water when Israel arrived at Meribah, and (as usual), complaints and rebellion were brewing among the people. So God gave Moses these detailed instructions: "Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle" (Numbers 20:8).

Instead, with the nation gathered before him, Moses went into a rage: "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice" (vv. 10-11). As a result, Moses was forbidden to lead the nation into the promised land (v. 12). Aaron likewise was kept out of Canaan and died immediately after the incident at Meribah (vv. 23-29).

It seems an extremely harsh punishment for a seemingly minor (and completely understandable) transgression. In Psalm 90:11, Moses acknowledges this, but he implicitly affirms the justice of God: "Who understands the power of Your anger and Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?"

In other words, no matter how much we might fear God's wrath, His wrath against sin turns out to be more than equal to the worst thing we could ever imagine. That's why the biblical descriptions of hell are so awful. God's wrath is infinitely worse than anyone really fears.

But notice: that doesn't cause Moses to despair. He knows about—and has tasted—the goodness of God as well. And that's what launches him into the petition phase of his prayer. Verse 12: "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom." In other words, help us to keep both the brevity of this life and the realities of eternity in perspective, so that we can be truly wise people.

And then Moses pleads with God for compassion: "Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days." (vv. 13-14).

Moses realizes that even though he can't erase the consequences of his sin, his life isn't hopeless. He's not dreading what's ahead or seeing the future with a grim outlook at all. He knows the mercies of God are inexhaustible, and God abundantly pardons. God can restore even the years that the locust has eaten. So Moses prays for a special outpouring of God's blessing. Verse 15: "Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil."

In other words, Give us blessing at least equal to our trouble. "Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" (vv. 16-17).

God answered that prayer. The work of Moses' hands was certainly established. His life's work was by no means wasted. And he wasn't kept out of the Promised Land forever. Because at the transfiguration, when Christ revealed His glory, Moses and Elijah were there, talking with Him. Moses got blessing equal to his trouble—and infinitely more. After all, God was His dwelling place—and God is a better dwelling place than the land of Canaan.

That's the whole point of Psalm 90. We are dying creatures. Our earthly comforts are few and they are only temporary. This life is going to end shortly. And even if you die of old age, it's a long process of decline to get to that point. The very best you can hope for is that your life will end like a drawn-out groan.

But if God is your dwelling-place then you have an eternal habitation, because He Himself is eternal. Not only that, if God is your dwelling place, then He can bless you even in this sin-cursed world. He will even bless you more than the days you have been afflicted. Certainly, the blessings of heaven are infinitely greater than all the miseries of this life combined.

Romans 8:18: "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." There's a lot for the believer to look forward to, no matter how miserable life gets.

Phil's signature

15 May 2011

A Word About Mothers, A Week after Mother's Day

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson



The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. Readers of Dan Phillips's Friday post may be interested to learn that Spurgeon had exactly the kind of godly mother Dan described in part 2 of his post. The following excerpt is from Spurgeon's Autobiography.


hildren are often very reticent to their parents. Often and often have I spoken with young lads about their souls, and they have told me they could not talk to their fathers upon such matters.

I know it was so with me. When I was under concern of soul, the last persons I should have elected to speak to upon religion would have been my parents,—not through want of love to them, nor absence of love on their part; but so it was. A strange feeling of diffidence pervades a seeking soul, and drives it from its friends.

Yet I cannot tell how much I owe to the solemn words of my good mother. It was the custom, on Sunday evenings, while we were yet little children, for her to stay at home with us, and then we sat round the table, and read verse by verse, and she explained the Scripture to us. After that was done, then came the time of pleading; there was a little piece of Alleine's Alarm, or of Baxter's Call to the Unconverted, and this was read with pointed observations made to each of us as we sat round the table; and the question was asked, how long it would be before we would think about our state, how long before we would seek the Lord.

Then came a mother's prayer, and some of the words of that prayer we shall never forget, even when our hair is grey. I remember, on one occasion, her praying thus: "Now, Lord, if my children go on in their sins, it will not be from ignorance that they perish, and my soul must bear a swift witness against them at the day of judgment if they lay not hold of Christ." That thought of a mother's bearing swift witness against me, pierced my conscience, and stirred my heart.

When I was a child, if I had done anything wrong, I did not need anybody to tell me of it; I told myself of it, and I have cried myself to sleep many a time with the consciousness that I had done wrong; and when I came to know the Lord, I felt very grateful to Him because He had given me a tender conscience.

Fathers and mothers are the most natural agents for God to use in the salvation of their children. I am sure that, in my early youth, no teaching ever made such an impression upon my mind as the instruction of my mother; neither can I conceive that, to any child, there can be one who will have such influence over the heart as the mother who has so tenderly cared for her offspring.

A man with a soul so dead as not to be moved by the sacred name of "mother" is creation's blot. Never could it be possible for any man to estimate what he owes to a godly mother. Certainly I have not the powers of speech with which to set forth my valuation of the choice blessing which the Lord bestowed on me in making me the son of one who prayed for me, and prayed with me. How can I ever forget her tearful eye when she warned me to escape from the wrath to come? I thought her lips right eloquent; others might not think so, but they certainly were eloquent to me. How can I ever forget when she bowed her knee, and with her arms about my neck, prayed, "Oh, that my son might live before Thee!" Nor can her frown be effaced from my memory,—that solemn, loving frown, when she rebuked my budding iniquities; and her smiles have never faded from my recollection,—the beaming of her countenance when she rejoiced to see some good things in me towards the Lord God of Israel.

C. H. Spurgeon


11 May 2011

Open letter to RADM Mark L. Tidd, Navy Chief of Chaplains

by Frank Turk

UPDATED: Navy changes mind about policy. And before they read my letter, even.

Dear Rear Admiral Tidd,

It's unlikely you're going to read this, I admit, because this is a blog explicitly about the Christian faith, and your job has become, since its inception in 1917 "to provide a system of appointing qualified and professional chaplains that meet the needs of the Navy," less about the Christian faith and more about finding a variety of religious backgrounds to counsel the sailors in the Navy. That's not hardly your fault -- it's just the state of things as our nation migrates further and further into multiculturalism and watches where we came from roll off toward the vanishing point on the horizon.

The reason I'm writing today is this bit in the NavyTimes about a policy change for the chaplains of the Navy. And I want to be fair to the logic of the policy change -- because it seems to me that this is not a change so much as it is a clarification of the role of the chaplain in the Navy.

As I read N097A/207063, the first matter of its business is to clarify that, barring the order of Don't Ask/Don't Tell, and previous military policy and guidelines, the use of naval facilities is not based on any pre-requisite sexual orientation. Fair enough, I guess -- I'm not sure I would have asked the question implied, but that's me. But then the next section states that a chaplain, insofar as he is licensed to do so, is practicing his own religious obligations, and it is legal in the jurisdiction in question, may participate in a ceremony of same-sex marriage.

Now seriously: this is a far cry from the establishment of chaplains in the Navy in 1775 who were, under orders of their captain, "to take care that divine service be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent."

I bring it up to you for a reason, which I have been pondering in other contexts lately. The reason is this: I wonder how we can anticipate each other to behave in a moral way anymore.

Before we go to far here, let's dispense with some of the more-rudimentary retorts to such a thought. For example, I grant that a person who does not share my moral orthodoxy (that is: my view of what is morally-orthodox, not my personal perfection -- which is lacking) can act in a nice way. They may even sometimes act in a morally-heroic way. I also grant that just because someone has chosen to do one particularly-immoral action and to justify it as not-immoral, they don't necessarily have a completely-defective moral code. They might have one blind spot, as a drunk who is a private drunk but still is a model citizen, or a person who only steals from dumpsters and empty lots but is a fabulous Boys & Girls Club volunteer and a member of the Rotary.

That is: I grant you that in theory we can say that someone who adopts a false moral precept is not necessarily, from a sociological point of view, someone we cannot trust at all. He might be a swell guy otherwise, and perhaps we should say with Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that."

Here's what worries me: that might be true in theory, but in practice we know for certain that moral codes are what they are. So a person who is guilty of avarice is inevitably guilty of other things that are caused by avarice -- and they likely justify all those things together as a bundle. They in fact have to do it -- otherwise they just simmer in want and frustration, and heavens knows that it's far worse to be bad company due to frustration than it is to be a secret scoundrel who is doing all manner of things to satisfy the envy and greed under the skin.

What worries me is that we are forgetting that agreement on the foundational moral items of our society is critical for there to be a society at all.

So when, for example, we make it clear that the use of our public spaces are hinged upon a principle of being "sexual orientation neutral," I'm afraid we've said a lot more than we intended. Seriously: Naval legal counsel really meant to say that any manner of sexual expression was A-OK in the Navy's public spaces? There's no way I'm going to unpack that, Rear Admiral, but I am certain that you can come up with at least one example which even you would say, "um, no. Not in the Navy."

But this is where we are headed. This is, in fact, where your policy is assisting us in going. I remember watching Monte Python's The Meaning of Life in college, and being flabbergasted by the scene in the prep school where John Cleese conducts a live-action sex ed class and thinking, "Wow. That's so far beyond absurd that it's not even funny -- its actually vile." And yet this week it is reported that this very thing happened at Northwestern University! 30 years and suddenly the completely-absurd unthinkable has become the practice. {Kudos to Northwestern, btw, who removed the Professor who did this from teaching that class -- but consider it: this person still teaches at Northwestern.}

Yet the slippery slope is not actually my point here -- it's an incredulous aside. It's the rabbit we cannot help but chase a moment because it cannot be avoided as we think about this.

My point is whether or not we can anticipate the moral judgments of people who do not agree with us on foundational moral premises. In the military, we have gone from the strict policy of DODD 1332.14 [which forbids propensity or intent to commit Homosexual acts] (10 U.S.C. § 654 [which upholds the longstanding tradition which places stricter codes of conduct on military personnel than ought to be enforced in civilian life]) which said homosexual behavior was incompatible with military service, along with the Uniform Code of Military Justice passed in 1950 which gave policies and procedures for discharging homosexual service members, to "Don't Ask/Don't Tell," to this policy -- which says, "it's your thing - do what you wanna do." What we have in fact done over time is to say this: military discipline does not apply to your sex life.



Now if we read that statement to 100 Americans, here's what I think someplace between 95 and 99 of them would say: of course, the military should not have jurisdiction over a person's sex life. So given the groundswell of support against such a thing, the Military ought to be broad-minded enough, wise enough even, to banish archaic codes.

That seems right, yes? It sounds like we should do this right away -- but then I go and read DoDD 1334.01, instructions for Wearing the Uniform. And let me say this: this instruction is far more detailed and far more restrictive than 1334.14. For example, section 3.1.4 says it is forbidden to wear the uniform when doing so "may tend to bring discredit upon the Armed Forces."

Discredit? Heavens -- that implies that we can agree on what is and is not a credit to the military, doesn't it?

What if we can't? See: the problem is not that people with an inconsistent system of moral values can't sometimes act like they are "just like" someone else. The problem comes when we have to decide what it means to be a credit or discredit to the Armed Forces -- or to our nation, for that matter.

And I put it to you: this is the foundational question the chaplain ought to be able to answer. The chaplain ought to be the agent of the divine in the midst of those who, if I may get Christian on you a second, are engaged in the rightly-appointed ministry of the sword on behalf of the government. When the chaplaincy has become the place where policy trumps the ability to define what is a credit or discredit, and what is an honor or a dishonor, it is no longer discharging, as they said in 1775, "the divine service."

I'm praying for you, Rear Admiral. I am hoping that somehow God will use you in this moment to do something which no one expects, and no one will understand -- but that everyone will agree was more than just the work of a good leader or a great administrator. And I leave you with that much to consider.






10 May 2011

Need for living, challenging, "provoking" fellowship

by Dan Phillips

Recently I alluded to a particular long stretch, some time ago, that I spent in ongoing depression. One of the contributing factors to that depression, and to its eventual defeat, was my church fellowship at the time... or lack of it.

Note well: I said "contributing factor." I alone am responsible for the choices I made and make as to my own mental, affectional, attitudinal furniture. But associations are among those choices, and they can help, or they can hurt (Proverbs 13:20; 1 Corinthians 15:33).

In this case, we were attending a church in which the give and take of real fellowship just did not happen. I wrote, then deleted, descriptions of what I'm talking about — because I'm unwilling to speak critically of a doctrinally-sound church. Let's leave it at this: whatever the reason, and despite our best efforts, the fire and the wood just never met for us there. Speaking for myself, despite my regular readings in the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, readings of Spurgeon and other good sources, I was shriveling up inside.

Then one day a friend mentioned a church he'd found with terrific preaching. I went, as an advance scout. Sure enough, it was very good preaching. I brought a positive report back to camp, and we returned in force. That became our church home for years. God did us a world of good there, and we served and committed and gave to the best of our ability.

But as I cast back my memory's eye, good as all that was, the single factor that I remember most piercing and affecting me was the living fellowship arising from that passionate, Biblical preaching. I attended a Men's Fellowship meeting, and there met men who were alive, growing, excited. Each time we got together, they'd talk about Piper or Sproul, or this Biblical doctrine or that, which were really gripping and helping them and lighting them up. I found myself challenged once again, involved in the give-and-take of fellowship. One brother loaned me tapes (!) of Piper's talks based on his then-new Future Grace. In the context of the preaching, worship and fellowship, that book helped me mightily.


Extended fellowship is also very helpful, as a supplement (not a substitute). For instance, apart from whatever good God has stooped to do for others through my writing, blogging has been helpful to me. Knowing Phil and Frank has been immensely helpful to me. Our godly, growing commenters have been helpful to me. The discipline of thinking and writing, knowing that people wiser and godlier than I (a staggeringly vast category) will be reading and assessing, has been helpful to me. These are challenges, pokes, prods.

In time, I came out of the darkness that had been my daily reality. I won't say that every moment since has been sunshine and puppies; I'm afraid my temperament this side of Glory will remain susceptible. (For instance, I've already had passing winces over the scathing reviews of my two books... reviews that haven't been written yet!) But I've never gone there to live again.

Churches do have personalities, as Revelation 2-3 attests. Verses like Proverbs 13:20 and 18:15 and 17 are instructive here. We must set our hearts individually (Proverbs 4:23) to seek God-fearing wisdom with singular devotion (Proverbs 1:7; 4:25-27). But at the same time, in our seeking of society, of fellowship, we need to be with people who also have this commitment. We need their iron to sharpen our iron (Proverbs 27:17). We need their faithful, foul-weather commitment (Proverbs 17:17) and their loving rebukes (Proverbs 27:6). We need to "provoke" to good works, and to be "provoked" (Hebrews 10:24). We need wise brothers and sisters to examine our opinions (Proverbs 18:17).

The alternative is the great and arrogant folly of isolation (Proverbs 18:1), in faithless disobedience (Hebrews 10:24-25), and all the miseries and spiritual retardation that attend that path (Jeremiah 2:19).

At the same time, we should do our best to assure that our friends are not themselves charitably "slumming" by their association with us, locked into a "take-and-take" relationship in which we alone benefit, and they only give and give. Find people who can challenge you, and give yourself to returning the favor.

It makes a big difference.

Dan Phillips's signature

07 May 2011

Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men

Your weekly dose of Spurgeon
posted by Phil Johnson



The PyroManiacs devote some space each weekend to highlights from The Spurgeon Archive. The following excerpt is from "Flee from the Wrath to Come," a sermon preached on Sunday evening, 23 October 1881, at the Met Tab in London.


onsider the question of John the Baptist: "When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"

I have no doubt that the Pharisees and Sadducees were very much surprised to hear John addressing them in that way; for men who wish to win disciples, ordinarily adopt milder language than that, and choose more attractive themes, for they fear that they will drive their hearers from them if they are too personal, and speak too sharply.

There is not much danger of that nowadays, for the current notion abroad now is that gospel ministers can sew with silk without using a sharp needle; and that, instead of piercing men with the sword of the Spirit, they should show them only the hilt of it; let them see the bright diamonds on the scabbard, but never let them feel the sharpness of the two-edged blade. They should always comfort, and console, and cheer, but never allude to the terror of the Lord.

That appears to be the common interpretation of our commission; but John the Baptist was of quite another mind.

There came to a him a Pharisee, a very religious man, one who observed all the details of external worship, and were very careful even about trifles, a firm believer in the resurrection, and in angels and spirits, and in all that was written in the Book of the law, and also in all the traditions of his fathers, a man who was overdone with external religiousness, a Ritualist of the first order, who felt that, if there was a righteous man in the world, he certainly was that one.

He must have been greatly taken aback when John talked to him about the wrath of God, and plainly told him that that wrath was as much for him as for other people. Those phylacteries and the broad borders of his garment, of which he was so proud, would not screen him from the anger of God against injustice and transgression; but, just like any common sinner, he would need to "flee from the wrath to come."

I daresay that the Sadducee was equally taken aback by John's stern language. He, too, was a religious man, but he combined with his religion greater thoughtfulness than the Pharisee did;—at least, so He said. He did not believe in traditions, he was too large-minded to care about the little details and externals of religion. He observed the law of Moses, but he clung rather to the letter of it than to its spirit, and he did not accept all that was revealed, for he denied that there was such a thing as an angel or a spirit. He was a Broad Church-man a man of liberal ideas, fully abreast of the age. He professed to be a Hebrew of the Hebrews; yet, at the same time, the yoke of religion rested very lightly upon his shoulders. Still, he was not irreligious; yet here is John the Baptist talking to him, as well as to the Pharisee, about "the wrath to come."

They would both have liked to have a little argument with him, but he talked to them about fleeing from the wrath to come. They would both have been pleased to discuss with him some theological questions, and to bring up the differences between their two sects, just to hear how John would handle them, and to let them see which way he would lean.

But he did not waste a moment over the matters in dispute between Pharisees and Sadducees; the one point he had to deal with was the one of which he would have spoken to a congregation of publicans and harlots, and he spoke of it in just the same way to these nominally religious people. They must "flee from the wrath to come;" or else, as surely as they were living men, that wrath would come upon them, and they would perish under it.

So John just kept to that one topic; he laid the axe to the root of the trees as he warned these hypocritical professors to escape for their lives, else they would perish in the common destruction which will overwhelm all ungodly men.

This was not the style of preaching that John's hearers liked; but John did not think of that. He did not come to say what men wished him to say, but to discharge the burden of the Lord, and to speak out plainly what was best for men's eternal and immortal interests. He spoke, therefore, first, concerning the wrath of God; and, next, he spoke concerning the way of escape from that wrath.

C. H. Spurgeon