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The Value of Singing the Psalms

I have commented here often on the value and importance of singing the Psalms. Here is a brief (about 4 minute) video which was the opening comments before one of the Psalmfests we have held at Union. I attempt to explain why we should sing the Psalms an dhow this practice benefits us.

Luther, Evangelist & Missions Advocate

Church Reformer Martin LutherOver the years many scholars have suggested that the Reformers had little interest in the task of world missions or evangelism. I have countered this idea concerning Calvin at this site and in several different publications (one, two, three). Here I’d like to address Luther.

I have not encountered among lay people as much the idea that Luther did not care about missions, but the idea has been fairly common among various scholars. For example Kenneth Scott Latourette in his influential A History of the Expansion of Christianity (vol. 3) included Luther in his assessment that “several early leaders of Protestantism disavowed any obligation to carry the Christian message to non-Christians.” Latourette said Luther believed the end of the world was so imminent that “no time remained to spread the Gospel throughout the world.” Furthermore, according to Latourette Luther did not understand the New Testament to place any burden on the church to take the gospel to the ends of the earth (interestingly, Latourette cites only a secondary source for these assertions; see the relevant page in Latourette).

However, a recent book shatters this view of Luther. Luther and World Mission: A Historical and Systematic Study, by Ingemar Öberg (translated by Dean Apel) is a massive and impressive study. Here are a few points drawn from Öberg’s work.

In Luther’s little classic, A Simple Way to Pray, Luther taught his people to pray for the conversion of unbelievers and for the gospel to be preached over the whole world. Luther encourages his people to meditate on each petition of the Lord’s Prayer and then to pray along the lines of each petition. Under both the first and second petition he suggests we pray for the conversion of unbelievers.

Secondly, the conversion of the “heathen” was a significant theme in a number of Luther’s hymns. If you are aware of Luther’s works you know how important the church’s songs were to him and the essential role he saw for them in teaching and forming character. Thus, the fact that this theme occurs frequently in his hymns suggests the importance given to the theme. For example here is an excerpt from his hymn based on Psalm 67 (a great missions psalm):

Would that the Lord would grant us grace,
With blessings rich provide us,
And with clear shining let his face
To life eternal light us;
That we his gracious work may know,
And what is his good pleasure,
And also to the heathen show
Christ’s riches without measure
And unto God convert them.

Öberg gives examples of other hymns and notes that in the preface to a certain hymnal Luther emphasized that the worshipful singing of believers can draw unbelievers to faith.

Lastly, Luther called for the gospel to be taken to the Bohemians, the Russians and the Muslim Turks, and shortly after his death mission work to these groups had begun (see pages 498-99). In this, he is similar to Martin Bucer, the Reformer of Strasbourg who chastised the European church for failing to mount a serious mission effort to the Turks.

So, yes, Martin Luther was concerned for evangelism and missions, even while he dealt with death threats from the most powerful institutions of his day, organized a new church and helped a generation rethink their basic worldview in light of the newly available Scriptures. What’s our excuse?


Hodge on Scripture

A question from a friend this week sent me digging back into Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, and I was encouraged again by his comments on Scripture. I was reading in volume three on the OT teaching on the afterlife, but it was his handling of Scripture in general that most interested me.

Hodge refer to “Those German writers whose views of inspiration are so low as to enable them to interpret each book of the Bible as the production of an individual mind, and to represent the several writers as teaching different doctrines” (vol 3, p 718). While this view apparently in 1873 was limited to certain German critics, it is increasingly common amongst people in the evangelical world today. It is not uncommon for me to have conversations with pastors or professors who will say, “Well, that’s just Mark’s idea” or “But which Paul are we talking about?” Pitting Scripture against Scripture with the presupposition that we have in the Bible disparate ideas which do not necessarily mesh with one another is a blight that apparently is being too readily accepted.

This is why, as Hodge states, “we know that now the humble Christian who submits himself to the teachings of the Spirit, understands the Bible far better than any mere verbal critic” (719). By “teachings of the Spirit” Hodge does not mean subjective impulses, but the Scriptures themselves. So, the most humble Christian who submits himself to trust and accept the Scriptures will understand them far better than one who merely studies them in an abstract, academic way.

Good reminders.

“Be ready to impart what you know”

spurgeon pageA few weeks ago I had the privilege of travelling around Scotland with four students as the culmination of our class on aspects of Scottish church history. It was a great time, and I hope to comment more on it.

One thing we did was visit several great book shops, chief among them James Dickson Books, with whom I’ve been doing business for quite a few years now. They have a wonderful array of books, and the owner is a wealth of information especially about the Covenanters.

On this visit, when he remembered I am a Baptist, Mr. Dickson wanted me to see some sermon manuscript pages he had from “Mr. Spurgeon.” In the end I purchased the one pictured here. Once home I had it framed at Graves Gold Leaf Gallery where Mr. Graves knows exactly how to handle and preserve old documents.

The page is from the sermon transcription done while Spurgeon preached with his own edits (in purple ink) before it was sent to the printer. That’s fun in itself. But, I like this page particularly for what it says. Spurgeon is preaching on 1 Cor 2:12 and at this page he is enlarging on the point that gospel truths have been “freely given to us of God.” Here is the sermon text from the page:

“He should give himself away because Jesus gave Himself for us. You should be of a large heart, for you serve a large-hearted Christ who has given you all things freely to enjoy. Next, be ready to impart what you know. If the Spirit of God has made you to know the things freely given of God, try to tell somebody else. Don’t act as if you had a patent, or a monopoly and wanted Divine Grace to be a secret. You have not the gift of God yourself if you have no desire that others should have it. The first instinct of a converted man is to try to convert others. If you have no wish to bring others to Heaven, you are not going there yourself.”

Yes! That is what I want to be about in the ministry the Lord has given me. Sharing the truths of God, passing along any understanding I may have, and pointing others to Christ.


The Body Snatcher

the body snatcherWhile in Scotland recently I picked up a nice older copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s little book, The Body Snatcher.  This is really a short story (originally published in 1881) but was published in a little volume as part of Merriam’s Violet Series in 1895.

This is a fascinating story which seemed in many ways to be a precursor to Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This was further confirmed when I saw that Jekyll and Hyde was published five years after this story. In the name of science the main character was taken in to the work of procuring human bodies for scientific study and teaching. Without the regulations and oversight we take for granted today and with an increasing demand for objects of study for a famous professor, the task of obtaining bodies takes a dark turn. What I found most intriguing was the case study the story provides for how sin entraps an individual, taking you further than you intended to go, and how one’s conscience can be seared. There is a clear progression from hating the sin, giving in, feeling sick over the sin, accepting it and then boasting in it.

The story ends abruptly and, to me, unsatisfactorily. Many loose ends are left. It seems like Stevenson needed to sell a short story, so cut this one off and sold it- as if the story itself, perhaps, grew beyond what he intended for it. It is quite worthwhile reading, but it would have been great for him to have brought the pieces to conclusion. Perhaps this is what led him to take up a similar theme and work it all the way through in Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

This would make great short reading with any group wanting to probe the realities of the growth and danger of sin.

Praying & Running

I was at a sports banquet tonight with one of my sons and the cross country coach gave a good challenge to his team. He told them the only way to improve in running was to run and to run often. He said, “There’s no magic trick to improving your running. You just have to run.”

It hit me, that the same is true for prayer. The Bible is clear on the importance of prayer in the life of a believer, and pastors are called to “devote” themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Yet, most of us struggle with prayer. Wherever there is a struggle- from weight loss to dating to prayer- there will be plenty of people offering a quick, easy solution (typically for a price!). But, there are rarely easy answers. Work is required and we’re just looking for lazy shortcuts. Similarly, in prayer the only way to learn to pray is to pray. You can use some instruction (particularly follow biblical prayers like the Psalms and our Lord’s model prayer), but then you must simply pray and pray often. As the Puritans said, pray until you pray.

Poetry & the Bible

imageFor the last 20 years, April has been designated National Poetry Month. Any reader of this blog will know that I have an interest in poetry and seek to indicate its value for pastoral ministry. In fact, I hope to one day edit a volume on the value of poetry in pastoral ministry.
In honor of National Poetry Month, I want to draw attention to three works which highlight the connection between poetry and the Bible.

The Poets’ Book of Psalms, edited by Laurance Wieder, provides a poetic rendering of every Psalm drawing from poets from the 16th to the 20th century. The quality of the poetry varies, but it is fascinating to see these renderings from across five centuries. It is a reminder that the Psalter has been not only the bedrock of Christian worship but also the fountainhead of much of Western poetry.


The other two works-  The Poetic Bible, compiled by Colin Duriez and Chapters into Verse (2 vols.), edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder- have a similar premise: compiling poems in English that arise from every section of the Bible. Both of these works draw from poems across several centuries. Since Chapters into Verse has two volumes it of course can be more comprehensive. Volume one covers the Old Testament, and volume two covers the New Testament. I particularly like Duriez’s introduction with his contemplation of the connection between the poetic and prosaic and how the Bible encourages symbolic thought.

Each of these volumes makes its own contribution, and I enjoy dipping into them when studying a specific potion of Scripture to see if there is a poem connected to my text. It is enriching to see how people across the ages have expressed these passages in verse.

I commend these to you in an age which has largely lost its poetry. We do well to reclaim this gift which God saw fit to use extensively in the Scriptures. Reawakening the poetic will help us better understand, proclaim and apply these Scriptures and, it seems to me, probably help us to grow towards being more fully human.

The Titanic and Evangelism

Today is the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so I am reposting an item from 4 years ago in honor of the heroic efforts of Scottish Baptist pastor John Harper.


Today is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. This terrible tragedy was also the occasion of some very heroic deeds as men by and large supported a “Women and children first” policy. Sadly the heroic aspect has been obscured by a dubious movie.  On this anniversary there is one specific story especially relevant to the theme of this site which I would not want us to miss. My friend Mark Donaldson pointed me to the story of John Harper, a Scottish Baptist preacher from Glasgow. Harper demonstrated the heart of a pastor and evangelist in this desperate situation.  This brief video from BBC news includes comments from the current pastor of Harper Memorial Baptist Church and Harper’s grandson. It is well worth watching.

Knowing the ship was going down, Harper, a widower, calmly placed his young daughter on a life boat along with his niece ensuring their safety while knowing he would likely not see them again. When the ship went down he was in the icy sea with a life jacket. Survivors reported that Harper called people to Christ aboard the ship and while in the sea.  Upon encountering a man without a life jacket, he asked if the man had trusted Christ. When the man said, “No,” Harper gave him his lifejacket saying the unbeliever needed it more than he did. This other man was later one of just a few who were rescued. John Harper died at sea, but the man who received the life jacket came to faith and later told the story.

Harper, like his Master, came to seek and to save the lost.

(Story on the website of Harper Memorial Baptist Church, Glasgow)

Evangelism in the Life of the Pastor

I am pleased for the Ryan Center at Union University to be hosting a public lecture by my friend, Jeremy Walker, this Thursday, April 14, at 3pm in Jennings 325. Jeremy serves as a pastor in Crowley, England and is the author of several books including The Brokenhearted Evangelist. I met Jeremy when we were both speaking at a pastors’ conference in Edinburgh several years ago. I greatly appreciated his preaching and followed up with him.

This will be  a great opportunity to hear from someone from a different context, with years of faithful pastoral ministry experience.

The lecture is free and open to the public.

Calvin Sermons on 1 Timothy, updated

The response to the new edition of Calvin’s sermons on 1 TimothyCalvin sermons cover has been encouraging. I hope readers find it edifying.

After releasing the book a friend helped me to update it in some ways which make it more user friendly, particularly by hyperlinking the table of contents so that with one click you can go directly to any sermon you want.

Anyone who has purchased the book can go to the “Manage Your Content and Devices” tab at Amazon, and you can update your version (no cost).