31 May 2008

Spurgeon: Read fewer blogs, more Scripture

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 "How to Read the Bible," a sermon published in 1879.

eed I suggest the question as to whether you do read your Bibles or not? I am afraid that this is a magazine-reading age, a newspaper-reading age, a periodical-reading age, but not so much a Bible-reading age as it ought to be.

In the old Puritanic times men used to have a scant supply of other literature, but they found a library enough in the one book, the Bible. And how they did read the Bible! How little of Scripture there is in modern sermons compared with the sermons of those masters of theology, the Puritanic divines! Almost every sentence of theirs seems to cast sidelights upon a text of Scripture; not only the one they are preaching about, but many others as well are set in a new light as the discourse proceeds. They introduce blended lights from other passages, which are parallel or semi-parallel thereunto, and thus they educate their readers to compare spiritual things with spiritual.

I would to God that we ministers kept more closely to the grand old book. We should be instructive preachers if we did so, even if we were ignorant of "modern thought," and were not "abreast of the times." I warrant you we should be leagues ahead of our times if we kept closely to the word of God.

As for you, my brothers and sisters, who have not to preach, the best food for you is the word of God itself. Sermons and books are well enough, but streams that run for a long distance above ground gradually gather for themselves somewhat of the soil through which they flow, and they lose the cool freshness with which they started from the spring head. Truth is sweetest where it breaks from the smitten Rock, for at its first gush it has lost none of its heavenliness and vitality. It is always best to drink at the well and not from the tank. You shall find that reading the word of God for yourselves, reading it rather than notes upon it, is the surest way of growing in grace. Drink of the unadulterated milk of the word of God, and not of the skim milk, or the milk and water of man's word.
C. H. Spurgeon

30 May 2008

More on Political Activism and the Gospel

by Phil Johnson

From time to time we pull classic comments up out of an old thread's combox. This is one of those. It's my reply to someone who suggested that the gospel includes an implicit mandate for political activism:

Every movement in the entire history of the church that has regarded political activism as a legitimate facet of gospel ministry has allowed political ideology to eclipse the gospel. That's true from Constantine to Cromwell to the Liberation theologians.

Note: I haven't suggested that the church should be silent about social (or even governmental) evils; merely that we have a more vital way to remedy those evils than by lobbying for legislation.

Also: It's not that I oppose legislation that would eliminate certain expressions of the evil that rules men's hearts. I'm all for it. But our calling as a church is to announce the remedy for the evil itself. Lets not get sidetracked in the electoral process. Let the dead bury the dead. That's what I'm saying.

R_____: "Part of what makes it hard to figure out what's appropriate for the church to be involved in is the fact that policy making was so far from participatory in the NT era. There was no lobbying for Jesus and the apostles to be involved in!"

Perhaps, but so what? Jesus is rightful Lord of all. If straightening out earthly political institutions had been any part of His work, why not mount a revolution? That's what the Zealots were trying to do. That's what the disciples originally expected Jesus to do. That's what politically-zealous Christians under non-democratic governments have often tried to do—invariably employing some of the very same arguments you have hinted at.

It's significant that Jesus didn't do that. And (the beliefs of some of my postmill friends notwithstanding) He didn't command the church to commandeer the machinery of earthly politics on His behalf, either.

It is a fact of history that every time the church has dabbled in politics—including in the very best cases, such as Calvin's Geneva—the experiments have ultimately failed. Usually in disastrous ways.

Will Durant had an insightful quote about the impossibility of harnessing human governments to help accomplish the true Christian mission. This came in a context where Durant was commenting on Cromwell's failure. Durant wrote:

In public [Cromwell] maintained an unostentatious dignity; privately he indulged in amusements and jesting, even in practical jokes and occasional buffoonery. He loved music, and played the organ well. His religious piety was apparently sincere, but he took the name of the Lord (not in vain) so often in support for his purposes that many accused him of hypocrisy. Probably there was some hypocrisy in his public piety, little in the private piety that all who knew him attested. His letters and speeches are half sermons; and there is no question that he assumed too readily that God was his right hand. His private morals were impeccable, his public morals were no better than those of other rulers; he used deception or force when he thought them necessary to his major purposes. No one has yet reconciled Christianity with government.
But Jesus said it best of all: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you. . ." (Matthew 20:25-26). See the context for even more insight into what Jesus meant.

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29 May 2008

The hardest aspect of pastoral ministry (part two)

by Dan Phillips

In part one, I laid out the single aspect of pastoral ministry that sets it apart from every other employment a human being can set his hand to: a pastor cannot infallibly measure his success by the visible fruits of his labor.

Some of the comments in the meta (which I commend to you) were so good that it's tempting simply to edit them together as a response. However, one or two still tended in the simplistic, "I-don't-see-what-your-issue-is" direction. So let me try to flesh it out a bit, and give more Biblical background.

The dilemma was expressed poignantly by Ligon Duncan at this year's outstanding Together for the Gospel conference. It was during a discussion after a message and, Herodotus-like, I'll give you a compressed summary:
If you go to a car factory, you might see all this disparate little pieces assembled one by one. And then, at the end — you have a car. It's done! Or even if you do something as insignificant as mowing a lawn, at the end, you can look back — and the lawn is mown. You see it. You're done.

But you can never say that in pastoral ministry. Ever!
And then Ligon put it this way: "Pastors are always wanting to get that interim report card."

He had put it so poignantly that it resonated deeply with me, and brought tears to my eyes. I doubt I was the only one in the room thus affected. Ligon phrased it perfectly, summed up the most trying aspect of pastoral ministry: insofar as you're a tender-hearted, God-centered pastor at all, you're desperate to know if you're pleasing Him, desperate to find some way of telling — now! — what you're going to hear when your ministry stands in review.

But there is no interim report-card. Not really.

If there were, what would it be? What is the visible, right-now, infallible indicator? Businesses have used the phrase, "How are we doing?" Every God-honoring pastor would like to be able to ask the Lord, "How am I doing?"

How could we tell? By numbers? If so, then Joel Osteen is a God-blessed success. Robert Schuller, Benny Hinn, Bishop Arius, Pelagius, Joseph Smith, Charles Finney, Harry Emerson Fosdick, every pope, Mohammed, Buddha — all of them have God's seal of approval, if numbers tell the tale.

And conversely, Jeremiah was a failure. Isaiah was a failure. Elijah was a failure. Moses was a failure. Paul failed in Lystra, and at other times. And, what's more, by that mark (I speak as a fool), Jesus was a failure, more than once. Edwards and Machen and Athanasius in their lifetimes experienced failure, at the points we (in retrospect) count them as most successful for the Kingdom.

But, if large numbers are no sure sign, then are small crowds, by contrast, proof of faithfulness, and large crowds just proof of the converse? Then Whitefield was a failure, Spurgeon was a failure; Piper is a failure, McArthur is a failure.

If outward signs are unreliable — and they surely are — can we tell how well we please God, by using internal indicators? Will He give us a reliable sense of success, a feeling that we are pleasing Him? Do we get that "interim report card" in our hearts, our souls?

If so, that sense was denied (at one time or another) to Jeremiah, to Asaph, to David.

I think we have to admit it: there is no single, analogous, infallible advance-indicator of pastoral success, externally or internally.

And yet pastoral ministry is vital, indispensable, essential, God-conceived, God-given, God-required, God-ordained, God-centered, and God-evaluated. We can't shrug off the question.

What's more, if you're worth anything as a pastor, you care. You care a lot. It isn't of distant or academic interest, because this isn't a hobby. It's your life, and you know that its echoes sound out into eternity.

What's more, if you're married and have children, the course of your ministry does not only affect you. It affects the dearest woman in your world, and the dearest children in your world, all of whose lives are indissolubly bound up with you.

If you — for the sake of argument, and to be blunt, simple and bottom-line — take a Biblically-necessary, God-honoring stand that alienates the people who pay your salary; if you see numbers steadily dwindle; if you see bills pile up; if you see yourself eventually forced to move... what kind of jerk could just shrug dispassionately and say, "Oh, well. Long as I'm being faithful" — and not care? It's your wife whose lot in life is bound up with yours. It's your children who have to uproot their lives, lose all their friends and familiar surroundings, and wander off where you wander.

If you mess up, they get messed up.

It matters!

So what's a pastor to do?

Next time, Lord willing, such as I have will be yours, in short form.

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28 May 2008

Book Review Smackdown

by Frank Turk

Well, here we are. On the one hand, I have Tim Stevens' Pop goes the Church, which Pastor Stevens wrote, as he says, because "I think that, just as he did in the first century, Jesus would disciple a small team of leaders while at the same time looking for opportunities to attract and influence large crowds."

On the other hand, we have David F. Wells' The Courage to be Protestant, in which Professor Wells asks, "But what happens when the middle class -- or worse yet, the middle aged -- also begin to sport tattoos on their sagging skin, let their pants sag halfway down their thighs, and sport hoodies as well?"

Indeed. That's the contrast between these two books -- and I want to be as fair as possible in contrasting them because, at the very least, we're talking about the contrasting opinions of two men who are pastors.

So first -- why bother to contrast these two books? The answer is utterly obvious: they are both written to the larger Christian community with the health and mission of the church at large in mind. Pastor Stevens says explicitly, "It has been encouraging to see a segment of the church wake up to the potential of leveraging the culture to reach our friends. These writings are helping us learn how to negotiate relationships with the unchurched, utilize pop culture to start spiritual conversations, and be discerning so as not to pollute our own souls in the process." It's sort of ironic that what Pastor Stevens recognizes in the next paragraph on page 32 is that these books have mostly abandoned the necessity of the local church -- which I would argue demonstrates whether or not these books are capable of teaching how to "be discerning".

On the other hand, Professor Wells says this: "But if the traditional church is so inept, ... so painful, and so boring, why not let it die peacefully? Why keep kicking it? Because the real target is not the traditional church but the traditional theology it lives by." (39)

Now, because Tim Stevens is not a new kid on the block -- he's at least in the third generation of Hybels-esque pastors to write books on this subject -- he has a whole chapter (Chpt 8) dedicated to the theology behind his idea that, as he frankly says, "you have to scratch people where they itch". (Chpt 7, and especially pg 121) His review team of over 50 seminary-trained men and women (I assume this is the list of people listed in the back of the book, pp. 251-253) has gone over Chapter 8, so it must be theology. And in that chapter, he says the following passages relate these truths:
  • Acts 17 (cited from the Message) indicates that Paul used Athenian culture to reach the Athenians because that's what he always did
  • Paul "[quoted] the first-century version of Dave Mathews"
  • Paul quoted Greek philosophers in Titus and 1 Corinthians to admonish Christians
  • Jesus was the only person in the NT to use the word "hypocrite", but this then proves Jesus was "redeeming the culture"
  • Because a non-Jew wrote Prov 31, apparently all secular lyrics have the potential to be the Word of God
  • Jesus did not invent the genre of parables, but instead employed a common literary device -- apparently endorsing the use of all common literary devices including "YouTube"
  • Because Jesus mentions two "current events" in the NT, "topical" teaching therefore has an open door
  • Jesus didn't live in a hole but actually met people like prostitutes and adulterous women -- though Pastor Stevens is clear to point out "Jesus never sinned"
  • Paul was "all things to all people"
  • And Paul exorted Christians to live "an everyday, ordinary life" (again with the Message, Romans 12)
And while I might disagree with the sort of parallels Pastor Stevens has made here (for example, comparing Dave Mathews to Cleanthes or Epimenides, or his, um, selective and atheological understanding of Prov 31's origin) I'd grant him the general facts of his examples.

The problem is that they don't hardly make the point he is seeking to make. His point is that if you don't serve the immediate needs of people ... wait -- let me quote him for you from Chapter 7:
You see, if you don't offer people something they need, they won't come. If people don't come, you can't teach them the truth. So an effective church is busy identifying people's needs and letting the community know you have some help they should consider.
His point is not that we are, for better or worse, a church in an American landscape and society in which we have to speak in words and idioms people will grasp: the "scratch their itch" purpose is not merely to communicate but to commoditize the church into something which works for people better than whatever it is they are trying now.

I have my own opinions about that, but here's what Pastor Wells says about such a thing:
The church is not our creation. It is not our business. We are not called upon to manage it. It is not there for us to advance our careers in it. It is not there for our own success. It is not a business. The church, in fact, was never our idea in the first place. (222-223)
And again:
Organizations are everywhere in the Western world, andn there is nothing unique about an organization. The church is utterly unlike any other organization in the world. In the church are those who belong to another world. ... Because when it gathers, it is hearing a summons to stand before the God os all eternity, to worship in awe before him, to acknowledge his greatness, to humble itself, to learn to live in this world on his terms, and to do its business as his. (223-224, italics in original)
These are the two conflicting opinions, dear readers. If you have read both of these books, you are welcome to comment here regarding which one offers the more compelling vision of the church and its mission.

If you have not read both books, feel free to read along and lurk -- but people simply looking to voice uninformed opinions need to keep those opinions to themselves. If I think you haven't read both books, I'll ask you once for some proof, and if it doesn't come I'll delete your comments.

Because that's how I roll.

Play on.

27 May 2008

The hardest aspect of pastoral ministry (part one)

by Dan Phillips

You'll not be surprised to learn that pastoral ministry has been on my mind for, well — okay, pretty much for my whole Christian life. In the doing of it, ere long I ran smack into what I think is hardest about pastoral ministry.

It certainly wasn't what you might think, or what I would have thought. It wasn't learning Greek or even Hebrew, or any of the Biblical or homiletical sciences; it wasn't learning the mechanics of candidating or interviewing or counseling or administrating; it wasn't preparing as many as four different messages a week; it wasn't maintaining a relationship with Christ or a holy walk. It wasn't earning degrees, or anything associated therewith.

It was the very nature of the work, in the specific aspect that sets it apart from every other "job."

Let's sidle up to that aspect.

Right now, I'm doing IT support. How do I know if I'm doing it well? Simple: I am doing well if I treat my callers decently and their problems gets resolved. Period. When the need has been met, I've succeeded.

How does a cook know he's doing well? If diners enjoy his meals, and come back for more. How does a farmer know he's doing well? If crops grow to harvest. How does a car mechanic know if he's doing well? If he succeeds in getting cars running as they should.

And how does any business measure its success? When it has enough people coming for its services and paying its prices to keep the business profitable. Simple. If this isn't happening, the smart owner finds out why, and fixes it. Location? Staff? Pricing? Advertising? Product? If it isn't what the public wants, you must change it, or perish.

I could go on, and quibblers could quibble, but I think you get the main, undeniable point: every human endeavor has ways to measure success right now (or shortly), and has an identifiable and quantifiable goal.

Every human endeavor, that is, except pastoral ministry. (Stay with me; you'll eventually see application for all Christians, though particularly so for pastors.)

Suppose a pastor preaches the Biblical Gospel with all his Spirit-enabled might, and not one unbelieving hearer comes to repentant faith. Ever. Has he failed? Or succeeded? How can he know?

Suppose a pastor patiently and thoroughly teaches Biblical doctrine(s), and a great majority of his congregation reject, or don't even think about what they've been shown from Scripture. Has he failed? Or succeeded? How can he know?

Suppose attendance in a pastor's church grows steadily. Has he failed? Or succeeded? How can he know?

Suppose attendance in a pastor's church declines steadily. Has he failed? Or succeeded? How can he know?

Suppose a pastor Biblically counsels a couple with a troubled marriage, and they divorce. Has he failed? Or succeeded? How can he know?

Suppose a pastor preaches his Biblical convictions and people (attenders or even colleagues) turn on him. Has he failed? Or succeeded? How can he know?

Think about that a bit, chat it over, and I'll develop the tension in more specifically Biblical terms in the next post, Lord willing. Then, in the third, I'll provide such answers as I have.

But I give you fair warning: I'm not particularly sanguine about simplistic, clich├ęd instant-answers and snappy formulas from idle theorists.

(As a hint, if you find yourself tempted to use the word "just" [as in, "I think a pastor just has to..."], do yourself a favor, and just don't.)

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25 May 2008

A Testimony

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 "Christ's Past and Present Witnesses," a sermon preached Sunday Evening 7 March 1880 at the Met Tab.

   had not long been in the house, that morning when I found the Savior, before one who had been anxious about me, said, "There is a change come over my son;" and a delicate question was put, which soon drew out of me the confession that I had looked to Christ, and that I was lightened.

Why, they could all see in my face the evidence of the change that had been wrought; there was all the difference between bondage and liberty, or between despair and delight; and it was because I had been with Christ that I had, in a moment, leaped out of nature's darkness into his marvellous light.

So, now, whenever anybody says to me, "Your view of the atonement, you know, is very old-fashioned, the doctrine of substitution is quite out of date;" I am not at all shaken in my belief.

The gentlemen of the modern-thought school, who have been to Germany for their theology, do not like that glorious doctrine of substitution. They think that the atonement is a something or other, that in some way or other, somehow or other, has something or other to do with the salvation of men; but I tell them that their cloudy gospel might have surrounded me till my hair grew grey, but I should never have been any the better for it. I should never have found peace with God, nor come to love the Lord at all, if it had not been that I distinctly saw that he, who knew no sin, was made sin for me, that I might be made the righteousness of God in him.

When I realized that, although I had gone astray from God, and broken his righteous law, he had laid on Christ my iniquity, and punished him in my stead, my soul found rest at once; and, to this day, it cannot rest under any other explanation of the atonement of Christ. So I bear my own personal witness, and many of you can heartily join with me in bearing similar testimony. You have been with Christ, so you can speak of the power of his substitutionary sacrifice as begetting peace in your soul.
C. H. Spurgeon

23 May 2008

Mystery Quotation: murmuring

by Dan Phillips

Since my betters here at the blog are busy...how about another round of Mystery Quotation?

Remember, no tricks
  1. Use your memory (or guessing) alone
  2. No electronic tools
  3. No Googling
  4. No murmuring about the "no tricks" rule
Better fasten your seatbelts for this one.

Here is your Mystery Quotation:
Murmuring is no better than mutiny in the heart; it is a rising up against God. When the sea is rough and unquiet, it casts forth nothing but foam: when the heart is discontented, it casts forth the foam of anger, impatience, and sometimes little better than blasphemy. Murmuring is nothing else but the scum which boils off from a discontented heart.
Ah, discontentment. Yow. If that quotation didn't singe you — re-read.

Since we have some of the most intelligent, well-read readers in the world, should be a piece of cake.

So start slicing!

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22 May 2008

Great news for Greekers: Alford gets Logosized

by Dan Phillips

As I preached through New Testament books, I always worked directly with the Greek text (duh — or should-be-"duh"), and I always consulted Henry Alford.

Henry Alford (1810-1871) was a remarkable scholar. He was "one of the most variously-accomplished churchmen of his day -- poet, preacher, painter, musician, biblical scholar, critic, and philologist." Though not exactly where I am doctrinally, he was a lover of the Word, and a meticulous student and scholar of the original text. To consider the massive amount of information that Alford amassed, examined and provided, in the age before computers, photocopiers, or even electric typewriters... it's staggering, simply staggering.

But that was Alford. For instance: what were you doing when you were six? I was watching cartoons. Henry Alford was writing The Travels of St. Paul, and a collection of Latin odes. Further, when Alford
...was scarcely nine he had compiled, in the straggling characters of a schoolboy, a compendious History of the Jews; besides drawing out a chronological scheme in which were tabulated the events of the Old Testament. Prior to the completion of his tenth year he actually produced a series of terse sermons or laconically outlined homilies, the significant title of which was Looking unto Jesus.
Unsurprisingly, Alford was made a fellow at Trinity College when he was twenty-four.

Nor was he merely an arid academic. When he was sixteen, Alford wrote in his Bible, "I do this day, as in the presence of God and my own soul, renew my covenant with God, and solemnly determine henceforth to become His, and to do His work as far as in me lies." He was known for his consistent and holy life, as well as his likable, friendly way of dealing with people.

When he was engaged to be married, he decided it would help his bride-to-be if she, too, knew Greek.

So he wrote a 60-page grammar for her.

Alford was quite the polymath. In addition to being a master of Greek, he penned a number of hymns. We read that Alford
would turn with zest, after hours of severe study given to the collation of a Hebrew manuscript or to the examination of the exegetical subtleties of a German commentator on the Greek Testament, to doctoring the hall clock and making it strike the half-hours, to tuning the piano in the drawing-room, or to playing games with his children in the nursery. The wooden front of the organ (which instrument he could play with the hand of a master) was carved according to his own ingenious design and by his own dexterous chiseling.
The grand literary opus that concerns us is
Alford's Greek Testament (1849-1861). As I said, it's a work of immense thought and study. I still find it highly useful. Much more impressively, when asked who he characteristically turns to for help in the Greek text, I was pleased to hear John Piper answer, "Henry Alford" (still trying to source that quotation).

[UPDATE: Phil Gons found the quotation, thanks to a suggestion by Pilgrim Mommy. It was after Piper's lecture on John Owen. Piper says:

When I’m stumped with a . . . grammatical or syntactical or logical flow [question] in Paul, I go to Henry Alford. Henry Alford mostly answers—he . . . comes closer more consistently than any other human commentator to asking my kinds of questions. (John Piper, “John Owen: The Chief Design of My Life—Mortification and Universal Holiness,” 1:30:11–1:30:31).

Now that Phil found the quotation, I remember agreeing with Piper: Alford asks my kind of questions, too.]

I found Alford to be a sound, sane commentator. What I found particularly valuable — even if I didn't end up agreeing with him specifically — was Alford's way of weighing competing interpretations. Alford had the broad grasp of Greek to be able to say, "If Paul had meant to say that, he would have written ___, or ___." He really wrestled with the Greek text as given, and forced me to enter into the writer's mind and thought-processes in choosing how to express himself. Understand the author, and you understand the voice of God. I found Alford useful to that end.

All that being the case, since Alford had (surprisingly) never yet been issued in electronic form, I recommended to the Logos Bible software folks that they consider it. I was delighted when they immediately responded by looking into the project — and now it's under way!

At present Alford's Greek Testament is in pre-production, during which time interested parties pre-order. This assures Logos that the considerable cost of production will be covered by purchases.

I slammed in my order as soon as I got the notice.

Thought at least some of you might want to know. If you're interested, go for it!

(Hmm... wonder who ordered first: Piper, or me?)

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Brief Aside: note on Steven Curtis Chapman

by Frank Turk

I was reading Tim Stevens' blog when I found this piece about a tragedy in Steven Curtis Chapman's family.

We should mourn this tragedy with the Chapman family and pray for the healing of this terrible accident in their family's emotional and spiritual lives.
    Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away; blessed be the name of Yahweh."
May God be with them.

21 May 2008

Book Review Smackdown reminder

by Frank Turk

Just a reminder for you that next week I'll sponsor an open discussion of the contrast between two books: Pop Goes the Church by Tim Stevens, and The Courage to Be Protestant by David F. Wells.

You're in luck because this is a long weekend, and you can probably read Stevens' book Friday night and then have the long weekend to attempt to do Wells' book some justice.

20 May 2008

Drives, and the Gospel

by Dan Phillips

A discussion we just started over at my blog had me thinking a bit about human drives, and what they mean.

A drive is that natural inner compulsion in a direction, a force that molds one's desires, choices, actions, aspirations. Men and women share many drives, while other drives are arguably more dominant in one sex than in the other.

Particularly little girls seem to be moved by drives to connect, whilst boys are moved to compete, to lead.

Now here's where our understanding of the Biblical teaching of comprehensive depravity is so vitally important to understanding ourselves and others, including our children. Sin can take a good drive, corrupt it, and turn it to great evil.

Thus masculine drives to lead are corrupted into drives to intimidate, dominate, crush, and overcome. Feminine drives to connect can become drives to seduce and ensnare and control. Natural sexual drives' perversions are documented in the daily paper (and sanctioned in some courts), as are drives for significance or achievement.

All this serves to show us how deeply we need a great and comprehensive Savior.

The last thing we need is merely to be forgiven our past sins, but left under the thralldom of corrupt drives. Nor are we helped if we are left unable to discern which drive is good, and which is evil. Our very hearts are sick and evil, and they deceive us (Jeremiah 17:9); in deceiving us, they turn our whole lives to sin's destruction (Proverbs 4:23).

We need a Savior who will secure and provide forgiveness for all our sins, past and future. We need a Savior who will give us new hearts, freed from enslavement to our corrupting drives. We need a Savior who will teach us to discern the good from the bad, the Hellish from the Godward.

And such a Savior is Jesus Christ, and Him alone (Ezekiel 36:25-26; Colossians 2:13-14; John 8:31-32).

Wonderful to be able to point our children to such a Savior.

Wonderful to point ourselves to such a Savior.

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19 May 2008

Angelology 101

by Phil Johnson

Few biblical topics have provoked more wild speculation and fruitless debate than angels. Scripture doesn't begin to answer all our questions about the subject. But there's a lot more information about angels in the Bible than you might think. (As a matter of fact, the Old and New Testaments combined speak of angels more than 250 times.) And it's important that we understand the biblical doctrine of angels correctly, especially in an age like ours, when so much popular superstition surrounds and obscures the truth about these glorious creatures.
(This article was originally published last year in Tabletalk Magazine.)

ow many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The question is raised nowadays only to caricature people who like to indulge in useless squabbling over theological fine points.

But some theologians in the middle ages were seriously intrigued by that question—and many other interesting enigmas like it: Do angels, being spiritual creatures, occupy any space at all? If not, how can they be in one specific place, and by what means do they move from one location to another? Can they be in more than one place at a time? What caused some of them to sin? Did those who sinned fall together, or individually? Which was the greater company—those who sinned, or those who remained holy? And what about guardian angels? Do elect humans have just one, or more than one, guardian angel assigned to them? Does an angel's guardianship begin at the Christian's conception, birth, or baptism?

Prior to the Reformation, practically every imaginable question about angels was a subject of debate at one point or another. Nineteenth-century Baptist theologian Augustus Strong pointed out that in medieval theology, "even the excrements of angels were subjects of discussion, for if there was 'angels' food' (Ps. 78:25), and if angels ate (Gen. 18:8), it was argued that we must take the logical consequences."

If medieval doctrine seemed obsessed with mysterious fine points about angelology, the focus of twentieth-century theology swung about as far as possible to the opposite extreme. Liberal and neo-orthodox theologians generally took the approach of the Sadducees, who claimed "that there are neither angels nor spirits" (Acts 23:8, NIV). Of course, Reformed and evangelical writers rejected that kind of skepticism and formally affirmed the existence of the spirit world. But they nevertheless produced very few published works dealing in depth with the biblical data about angels.

Someone might point out that for the past twenty-five years or so (owing mainly to a handful of fiction writers who captured the evangelical market), demons have loomed large in the popular evangelical consciousness. But sensationalized novels about demonic activity don't constitute authentic theological discourse. And considered as a whole, it seems fair to say that the body of serious Reformed and evangelical writing over the past century has shown a remarkable apathy about angelology.

Compare, for example, Strong's Systematic Theology (1886 1st ed.) with almost any of its mid-twentieth-century counterparts. Strong devoted 21 thickset pages to the heading "Good and Evil Angels." But some of the most important conservative systematic theologies of the past half-century have essentially omitted the subject altogether.

Robert Duncan Culver's Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Christian Focus, 2005) takes careful notice of that trend and aims to help reverse it. Culver devotes a large chapter to the study of angels. He begins by noting that "the publishing lists are well supplied by books on demons, witches, Satan, and other real, or imagined personnel of the dark side of the unseen world, but only a very few currently on the subject of God's messengers, the angels" (p. 164). Culver rightly proposes that evangelicals would do well to study the subject anew, especially in light of the world's current fascination with the angelic realm.

It's a valid and important point. Ironically, while interest in demonic activity has been on the rise among Christians, angels have become an extremely popular topic once again among non-Christians.

The rising tide of New Age spirituality, spurred by a profound backlash against sterile secular rationalism, has awakened a widespread curiosity about angels and the spirit-world. Several movies, an extremely popular prime-time television series, and countless books have been devoted to the subject. About an hour's drive from my office is a New-Age establishment that bills itself as "the world's largest Angel store." The shelves there are well-stocked with paintings, statuettes, and new-age books ostensibly teaching people how to communicate with angels. They also have a large selection of gewgaws called "shelf angels"—porcelain figurines designed to sit on the edge of a shelf—mostly winged women and cherubic toddlers sporting diminutive angel-wings of their own.

So just as modernity led to a diminished interest in angels, postmodernity has resurrected a superstitious belief in them. This presents Christians with a unique opportunity to shed biblical light on a spiritual topic the world is currently showing interest in learning about.

Of course, it is by no means possible in one short article to make up for the egregious deficiency of a century of evangelical apathy on this topic, but perhaps we can make a helpful start by highlighting some of the key biblical truths and answering some of the popular misconceptions about angels. Here's an outline that represents a very small first step:

Angels are spiritual creatures. Scripture speaks of the angels' creation only in passing. They are not explicitly mentioned in Genesis 1, so the precise timing of their creation is uncertain. Job 38:7 seems to speak of the angels' worshiping when God laid the foundations of the earth, so their creation could well have occurred at the very start of day one in the six-day time frame.

Nevertheless, Scripture plainly teaches that angels are creatures, and not eternal beings of some kind. God "alone has immortality" (1 Timothy 6:16). And Psalm 148:1-5 is a summons for the angels, along with the rest of creation, to worship. It says, "Let them praise the name of the Lord! For he commanded and they were created" (v. 5). Colossians 1:15-17 also indicates that the angels were created by Christ and therefore are subordinate to Him.

They are spirit-beings (Psalm 104:4; Hebrews 1:7, 14) and therefore incorporeal as to their nature, but they are capable at times of assuming at least the appearance (if not the actual albeit temporary form) of bodily organisms (Genesis 19:1-14; John 20:12). They can do this so perfectly that they are easily mistaken for humans (Ezekiel 9:2; Hebrews 13:2). But because we know that "a spirit does not have flesh and bones" (Luke 24:39), we ought to understand that these occasional visible manifestations of angels are an accommodation to the limitations of human perception, and not a lesson about what angels are truly and essentially like.

Angels are personal and moral beings. Angels are always portrayed with personal attributes, including intelligence, volition, and a moral nature. Their wisdom and power are vastly superior to our human abilities (2 Samuel 14:20; Psalm 103:20), but their knowledge is by no means exhaustive (there are "things into which angels long to look"—1 Peter 1:12; as well as facts they do not know—Matthew 24:36).

Proof that angels are moral agents, capable of sin and righteousness, is evident from the fact that some did sin (2 Peter 2:4). Jude 6 suggests that they did this by exceeding their legitimate authority and abandoning "their proper dwelling." Apparently this was an organized rebellion, led by Satan. The apostle John's vision in Revelation 12:1-9 seems to refer Satan's original fall, suggesting perhaps that as many as a third of the angels followed him in his rebellion, and that is why they were cast down.

The angels who did not sin are referred to as "holy angels" (Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26).

The angels are a mighty multitude. Without giving any hint as to their actual number, Scripture makes it clear that the angelic host is a vast and imposing army. The expression "host of heaven," often used to signify the angels (Deuteronomy 4:19; 2 Chronicles 18:18; Luke 2:13), suggests an innumerable throng (cf. Jeremiah 33:22).

The angels were apparently created all at once, yet individually. They are never portrayed as a race descended from a common ancestor (Luke 20:34-36). Humans are called "sons of men," but angels are never called "sons of angels." As a matter of fact, Jesus emphatically said that angels do not marry (Matthew 22:30). As to gender, they are always referred to with masculine pronouns—but since they have no feminine counterparts and are spiritual beings who do not procreate, it would seem that they cannot meaningfully be categorized as either male or female.

But they are nonetheless organized in ranks and legions similar to a massive army. Again, the expression "host of heaven" evokes the idea of an armed company. Jesus said on the night of His betrayal that he could have instantly summoned "more than twelve legions of angels" to fight on His behalf (Matthew 26:53).

The orders of angels are not fully enumerated or explained by the Bible. But the angelic host includes at least one archangel, the seraphim, and the cherubim. The archangel, Michael, is named in Daniel 10:13, 26; Jude 9; and Revelation 12:7. He seems to be the highest of all angelic creatures. Only one other holy angel, Gabriel, is explicitly named (Daniel 8:16; 9:21; Luke 1:19, 26). Some think he is therefore similar in rank to Gabriel, but Scripture doesn't actually designate Gabriel as an archangel.

The seraphim are mentioned only in the heavenly vision recounted in Isaiah 6:2-6, where the prophet describes them as glorious and imposing figures who stand before God's throne and praise Him constantly, guarding the holiness of His throne.

The cherubim, far from the chubby-faced childlike figures often pictured in popular art, seem to represent the power and majesty of the angelic host. They were positioned as guards by the entrance of Eden (Genesis 3:24). They were also the symbolic guardians of the ark of the covenant (Exodus 37:6). And they formed a living chariot of fire on which the Lord would ride (2 Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:10; cf. Ezekiel 10:1-22). They are always described as fearsome and awe-inspiring creatures.

Other Angelic beings are called thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers (Colossians 1:16). Similar terms are applied even to the fallen angels (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15). But the precise number and arrangement of the heavenly host is one of the many questions about angels that are left unanswered for us in Scripture.

Angels are God's unseen ministers. One of the most interesting questions of all about angels has to do with their unseen service on behalf of believers. Scripture portrays angels as caretakers of God's providence on our behalf—"ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation" (Hebrews 1:14). In Matthew 18:10, Jesus (speaking of His own tender care for little children) said, "I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven"—suggesting that specific angels have guardianship of specific individuals. And Hebrews 13:2 says, "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." Very little further explanation of the angels' service to humans is given. Many are tempted to inquire into the matter in search of specifics Scripture doesn't reveal.

But we are expressly forbidden to do that. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever." When it comes to the subject of angels, we would do well to keep reminding ourselves of those boundaries on each side of the narrow road. It will keep us from falling into the sort of superstition that dominated medieval angelology, and it will also steer us away from the apathy and rationalism that has marred modern theological thought.
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17 May 2008

On Ministers Who Chase the Fads of Contemporary Thinking

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 "Recruits for King Jesus," a sermon preached at the Met Tab on Sunday evening, 17 February 1884.

here are some cringing, fawning spirits in this world, who must always go with the majority. What everybody says, they say. They take their cue from those who lead the fashion of the hour. They ask leave of common custom to breathe or eat. They dare not swallow down their spittle till they have obtained permission so to do. Cringing, fawning sycophants of all that is great, and all that is fashionable, scarcely could a soul be found in them if they were searched through and through with a microscope. . . .

Shame on [men of that sort who] are called Christian ministers! They believe in Christ, but it is a Christ without his crown, his atonement, his judgment-seat, or even his Godhead. They mock us with orthodox phrases, from which the essential truth is gone. They pretend that they believe in the atonement, and when we listen to their atonement we find that it does not effectually atone for anyone. It is a mere fiction, and not a fact. It saves nobody, but is a mere sham.

They have eviscerated the gospel, and then they hold up the empty carcase, and claim that they are Christians still. Christians who have murdered Christianity! Believers who doubt whether there is anything to be believed! Yet we are entreated in our charity to hug such traitors to our bosom. We shall do nothing of the kind. We would sooner believe in infidels outright than in those who pretend to be Christians and are infidels at heart.

"Modern thought" is a more evil thing than downright atheism; even as a wolf in a sheep's skin is worse than a wolf in his natural form.

There are pretty things said of our Lord Jesus by those who deny the faith which are sickening to me. I loathe to hear our true Lord praised by false lips. They deny the doctrines which he taught, and yet prate about believing him. It is a shallow trick, but yet it deceives shallow souls. Poor, weak minds say, "The man speaks so beautifully of Jesus, surely he cannot be in error." I tell you it is the old Judas trick—the Son of man is betrayed with a kiss. How nauseating their praises must be to him whom they are betraying! Think not that they are honest; their designs are far other than appear upon the surface. They laud him as man that they may dishonor him as God: they cry up his life, and his example, that they may cast his atoning sacrifice into the ditch. They lift up one part of the divine revelation with no other intention than that they may dash down the other: they crouch at his feet that they may stab at his heart.

I avow myself at this hour the partisan of Christ, and of the whole truth of Christ, in its old-fashioned form: the more old-fashioned the better for me. I am for Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. I am for the Gospel of martyrs and confessors who gave their hearts' blood as the seal of their faith. New gospels and new theologies I abhor. I am for that same ancient gospel which to-day is said to be absolutely defunct. Science has wiped out the evangelicals; we are dead; we are gone. So they say of us. Yet in our graves we turn; even in our ashes live our wonted fires; we expect a resurrection.

Truth may be crushed down, but it cannot be crushed out. If there survived but one lover of the doctrines of grace he would suffice by God's Spirit to sow the world again with the verities of our holy faith. The eternal truth which Christ and his apostles taught is not dead but sleepeth; at a touch of the Lord's hand she shall rise in all her ancient power and look round for her adversaries, and they shall not be: yea, she shall diligently consider their place and they shall not be. Blessed are they who at this time are not afraid to be on the side that is ridiculed and laughed at. Truth will have its turn, and though it now grind the dust it shall be at the top before long, and they who are loyal to it shall share its fortunes. Let us be bold enough to say, "Put down my name among the fools who believe, and not among those whose wisdom lies in doubting everything." God save us from the wisdom which believes in itself, and give us more of the wisdom which believes in him!

C. H. Spurgeon

16 May 2008

Light in a Dark World

Part 2 of a Series
by Phil Johnson

he qualities Jesus blesses in the beatitudes are not the same attributes the world typically thinks are worthy of praise. The world glorifies power and dominion; force and physical strength; status and class. By contrast, Jesus blesses humility, meekness, mercy, mourning, purity of heart, and even persecution for righteousness' sake.

Collectively, those things are the very opposite of political clout and partisan power. Jesus is describing people who are willing to be oppressed and disenfranchised for the sake of true righteousness. They are peacemakers, not protestors; poor in spirit, not affluent and distinguished; people who are persecuted, not the pompous and the power mongers.

And yet, notice. These poor and oppressed people are the ones Jesus is addressing when he says in Matthew 5:13 "You are the salt of the earth"—and in verse 14, "You are the light of the world." He begins addressing them directly in verse 11: "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

To whom is he speaking? The believers in His audience, those who exemplify the traits He blesses in the beatitudes. Those who were persecuted for righteousness' sake. Those who were reviled for His Name's sake. They were for the most part simple, common people—everyday people from among "the multitudes" (v. 1).

According to Mark 12:37, "the common people [were the ones who] heard him gladly." Not the priests and the leaders of the Pharisees. Not the Sanhedrin. Not men like Pilate, or Herod, or Caiaphas. Not men with worldly influence. Not even a class of clergy. Certainly not political agitators. But the common people. And to them, He says, "You are the salt of the earth . . . You are the light of the world."

It was significant and probably shocking to the multitudes that Jesus employed such expressions to describe them, because the title "light of the world" was an honor certain eminent rabbis liked to bestow on themselves. Spurgeon commented on this passage, saying:
With great pomposity they spoke of Rabbi Judah, or Rabbi Jochanan, as the lamps of the universe, the lights of the world. It must have sounded strangely in the ears of the Scribes and Pharisees to hear that same title, in all soberness, applied to a few bronzed-faced and horny-handed peasants and fishermen who had become disciples of Jesus. Jesus, in effect, said,—not the Rabbis, not the Scribes, not the assembled Sanhedrin,—but you, my humble followers, you are the light of the world.

He gave them this title, not after he had educated them for three years, but at almost the outset of his ministry; and from this I gather that the title was given them, not so much on account of what they knew, as on account of what they were. Not their knowledge, but their character made them the light of the world.
Of course, Jesus also claimed that title for himself in a very special and unique sense. It was one of His most explicit claims of deity (John 8:12). He is "the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9)—the source of all true light. He is like the sun, compared to which we are merely candles. But even as candles, we give off light, and even the faintest light of the smallest candle is capable of piercing and dispelling total darkness. The collective light of many candles has a still greater influence. That is how Jesus pictures our role in a sinful, dark, and fallen world.

The metaphor of Matthew 5:13 has similar significance: "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." Salt has several properties, but perhaps the most important (in a first-century culture especially) is that it acts as a preservative.

Verses 13-14 are declarative: "You are the salt of the earth. . . . You are the light of the world." The only imperative in this context is verse 16: "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."

In other words, Jesus was not commanding His followers to be salt and light. He was saying that if you are a true believer, you are salt and light. He's urging us not to lose our savor or hide our light. Salt is what it is by nature. Light is what it is by nature. You can contaminate salt or hide light, but you can't make sand into salt or turn a stone into a candle. So He doesn't "command" us to "be salt"; He says we are salt and cautions against losing our savor. He doesn't command us to be light; He says we are light and forbids us to hide under a bushel.

And what is supposed to happen when we let our light shine before men? They see our good works and glorify God. This is not about wielding political clout. It's not about organizing protests against ungodliness. It's about how we live—the testimony of our lives. It's about exemplifying the same traits Jesus blessed in the beatitudes. That's how we let our light shine, and that's the saltiness we inject into an otherwise decaying and tasteless society.

Christ has made us different from the world, and we should simply be what we are. We're salt in a decaying and tasteless culture, and we're light in a dark world. If we give up (or cover up) what makes us distinctive, we lose our savor and forfeit our only real influence. If we have to squelch the heart of the message Christ has called us to proclaim in order to advance some political or moralistic agenda, we're guilty of hiding our light under a bushel. Those who think the church can have a greater influence by adopting a worldly strategy are actually undermining the only valid influence Christians can have on society.

When we merely imitate the world by jumping on every worldly bandwagon, when we make worldly alliances to advance political causes, or when we adopt worldly strategies to win the world's approval, we forfeit our distinctiveness. The contemporary evangelical movement is guilty of that kind of compromise on multiple levels. We've put sand instead of salt in the salt-shaker, and we have put bushel baskets over our candles.

Here's the remedy: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." It speaks to us on an individual, as well as a collective, level. It describes what we must do corporately as a church; it gives a much-needed corporate corrective to the evangelical movement as a whole; but notice: it also reveals what you and I need to be doing as individuals.

Do you want your life to count for eternity? Do you want to maximize the influence of your life on your children, your neighbors, the people at work, people in your community, and ultimately the whole world? Here is Jesus' strategy for spreading the light, one candle at a time. This is what He calls you and me to do: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven."

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15 May 2008

Know how to think, and the what takes care of itself

by Dan Phillips

I began What I think about "the Florida revival" with this admission:
I don't know anything about it specifically. Not one thing. Haven't read an article, haven't listened to an anecdote, haven't heard a podcast or sermon or phone-in commenter. I think a friend said something in an email... but I've forgotten it.
Then I claimed that I was proceeding this way for a specific reason, and challenged my readers to figure out what that reason might be. Most who tried at least got pretty near to fingering it, but left enough unsaid that I decided to devote a post to an explanation. Whereupon commenter Trogdor promptly wrote this:
There are objective standards in God's word by which we must test whether a 'movement' or 'revival' is truly a work of God. These standards are to be applied across all boundaries, denominations, etc. By remaining ignorant of specific Florida happenings, you were hoping to show that your application of these standards is not based on anything specific about that movement, but are universal - you'd be asking the same questions if the reports were coming from Phil or Frank. The genesis of these questions was not from any reports of wrongdoing; it's in the unchangeable standard of God's word.
This answer is alarmingly accurate. So much so, that I paused a moment to make sure "Trogdor" wasn't my sock-puppet. But I knew he couldn't be. I could never have been that concise.

So let's just trace the path of a Christian's growth, from pre- to maturity, and then locate this on that map:
  1. We start out wrong about everything important. We have an innate sense of God, but we suppress and pervert it (Romans 1:1-32). We're dead and blind (Ephesians 2:1-3; 4:17-19). In this condition, even if we hear the Word of God, nothing savingly significant happens (Matthew 13:4-7, 18-22).
  2. God sovereignly gives us life (Ephesians 2:5), causes His word to be life to us (1 Peter 1:23-25), enables us to see what we had been unable to see (2 Corinthians 4:3-6), and saves us by grace through faith as a gift (Ephesians 2:8-10).
  3. Thus awakened and made alive, we respond to God's word in faith (Romans 10:17), yoke ourselves to Christ in repentant faith (Matthew 11:28-30; Acts 11:18; 17:31), in witness to which we are baptized (Acts 2:38) and committed to a lifelong process of learning His word (Matthew 28:18-20; John 8:31-32).
  4. Our goal then becomes to grow to maturity in and unto Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16; 2 Peter 3:18).
  5. Specifically, what this maturity looks like involves (among other things) a grounded stability in God's revealed truth that is resistant to the gusty winds of fad and fashion (Ephesians 4:13-14), and a well-practiced adeptness in the Word of God that enables us to assess, discern, and judge right from wrong, good from evil, and truth from falsehood (Hebrews 4:12; 5:14).
On conversion, the new believer lays down as a basic premise the Lordship of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3b). This is the controlling consideration for all that follows (Colossians 2:6-7). Insofar as he is true to his birthright and call as a Christian, he begins building a framework of truth, and continues building all his life (Proverbs 1:2-6). His goal is to be able to test all things, internal and external, in the light of God's Word (Psalm 119:9, 11; Hebrews 4:12).

His hero isn't Indiana Jones, so his motto isn't "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go." His hero is Jesus Christ, whose life was a symphony of pursuit of His Father's will (John 4:34).

And so he doesn't drop his Bible and dance the Headless Chicken Jig every time —
  • someone tells a hair-raising barn-burner of a story; or
  • some World-Class Scholar (or mega-church pastor) writes a Newest, Greatest, Everything-Must-Change book; or
  • popular opinion turns against a truth he's convinced of from Scripture; or
  • everyone who's anyone is embracing a teaching he's not convinced of from Scripture; or
  • the secular media's fitful fascination lights briefly on some new religious entertainment.
The disciple's goal is not conformity to the fickle fads of the world, secular or religious. Rather, it is (to coin a word) transformity, into the likeness of the mind, will, and character of God (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

And so that, in a word, is why I thought it worth telling you how I will think about "the Florida revival."

Which, on second thought, would have been a better title.

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14 May 2008

The Ordinary Pastor

by Frank Turk

I've had this book, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor, sitting in my pile of things to blog about for about 2 months now, and I seem to be getting distracted from it by some infernal purpose over and over again. Well, before some other devil's work gets in the way, let's get after it.

A fellow who trained a few pastors in his day wrote a letter to one of his students -- probably one of the last things he ever wrote -- in which he told the young man this:
Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
And in this letter, this fellow goes on to point out to this young man that many of the fellows he knows and was trained with have fallen away to other things.

It's funny to me that this guy, who is in prison as he writes this letter for having preached the Gospel, never asks Timothy, "how many people now do you have in your church?" And never exhorts him, "if you do these things, you'll be successful."

D. A. Carson's book about his father is sort of haunted by this letter from Paul to Timothy -- Carson never directly mentions it, but as I read the book, 2 Timothy kept coming back to me again and again. And it's not, btw, that Tom Carson (Dr. Carson's dad) was somehow like Demas -- far from it. It's that Pastor Carson served God, prayed for conversions, made great sacrifices for the sake of the Gospel in a place where, in spite of its western history, the Gospel was hardly heard -- and he didn't get a large church and a book deal out of it.

In fact, Tom Carson didn't any material gain from his work at all -- and this is the point.

A lot of pastors read this blog, and most of you -- let's face it, almost all of you -- have churches which are a lot smaller than it would take to get you upper-middle class salaries, and often your children are not the best-dressed. Some of you are bi-vocational to make ends meet; many of you have wives that work. And your churches, as far as you can tell, are sort of stuck on one step of spiritual maturity (which is a nice way to avoid saying what you sometimes fear -- that your church is stagnant).

And in that, you should read this book by D. A. Carson. You should read it because this is a book about ordinary pastors like Tom Carson, and frankly, like Timothy, the student of Paul. It is not a manual for church growth or evangelistic explosions: it is a study of how one man suffers for the sake of Christ toward a people who, frankly, don't deserve him and the message he brings -- but he loves them anyway, not with fluffy emotions but with commitment and endurance, and at great personal sacrifice.

The wrong take-away from this book is, of course, that it's OK to have a church which isn't growing either in faithfulness or in head-count -- even though Pastor Carson's church never grew much. The right take-away is that you can't see all the effects of faithful ministry right now, today. That was Paul's encouragement to Timothy, my friends, and through the life of Tom Carson, it should be the encouragement to you.

Read this book, and think about what you value in your work with God's people and God's word. And think about the fact that Timothy was stoned in the streets of Ephesus by these people he was trying to deliver the Gospel to. That's what pastoral ministry is about, and if you are trying to make it something else, read 2 Timothy over again for your own sake.