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Grant Taylor on REF500

Last week Grant Taylor, Union University alum and Associate Dean of Beeson Divinity School, visited our campus and was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss how and why the Reformation is important and what we can look forward to with his boss, Timothy George, coming as one of our plenary speakers at our REF500 festival coming in March.

Lessons on Preaching from Calvin

img_3416Over the weekend The Gospel Coalition posted an article I wrote titled, “8 Lessons Calvin Teaches Us About Preaching.” As we approach Reformation Sunday this coming weekend, it is a good time to reflect on various ways we can learn from this significant time in church history.


My article draws from the time I spent editing and updating a new English version of Calvin’s 54 sermons on 1 Timothy (which ran to over 800 pages in manuscript). In these sermons you find a pastor who cares deeply for his people, esteems highly the Scripture and wants people to know God. There are numerous lessons to be drawn from these sermons but I pointed out these eight:

  1. Focus on Scripture itself.
  2. Not every sermon will soar.
  3. Most preaching is done in the midst of difficulty.
  4. Preachers must be both bold and humble.
  5. Preachers must be burdened for the salvation of souls.
  6. Preachers must be patient.
  7. Preaching must address everyday life, including marriage, family, and child-rearing.
  8. True biblical preaching requires searching application.

The article briefly expands each point. I hope it will be helpful particularly to those who preach the Word each week to the people of God.

Winston Churchill on Pastoral Ministry

inside-of-the-cupNo, not that Winston Churchill. I’m referring to the American novelist who was quite famous in the early 20th century. I listed his novel, The Inside of the Cup, as one of the most intriguing books I read in 2015. I had hoped to write something more extensive about the book, but as typical I have not.

This book, which was the bestselling book in the US in 1913 and made into a movie in 1921, is informative and intriguing. The protagonist, John Hodder, is a young pastor with charisma. He has recently been called from a small pastorate to the big church in the big city (which, though not named, is supposedly modeled after St. Louis). He is earnest and idealistic, upholding the historic truths of the faith which so many are abandoning. The older members of the large church are excited for him to come so that they might have a young man hold forth the old ways. Early on he takes a difficult stand on biblical ethics even when it distresses a church member. That portion of the book provides a good model of what pastors must often do even though it is hard. Early on in the book, I thought this might provide an exemplary portrait of pastoral ministry.

However, before long a change begins. Orthodoxy is portrayed as comfortable truths which insulates the powerful, protecting their position while giving them the cover of religion. Orthodoxy then is, at best, unaware of, and, more often, unconcerned for the poor and the oppressed. The pastor, John Hodder, encounters real people who have been hurt by the inhuman business practices of his leading church members and begins to reconsider his commitment to orthodoxy. Churchill portrays a brave, noble transformation as Hodder throws off doctrinal truths in favor of a social gospel.

What makes this a useful read, then? For one thing it provides a front row view of the issues fomenting in the church in the early 20th century. This book was published just 10 years before Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. The reception of Churchill’s novel shows how this doctrineless, non-supernatural “gospel” appealed to people at the time. Secondly, it is effective propaganda. No one would want to support those who are for orthodox doctrine in this story. They are all greedy, heartless individuals who really care for Jesus no more than they do for other people. Thus, and thirdly, the book gives us a portrait of how orthodox Christianity is seen by many people. That the portrait is terribly false does not change the fact that it is common. It would be a useful exercise to work through the situations of this book discussing with others how true orthodoxy should respond, holding fast to biblical truth and showing how that relates to caring for hurting people. One thing that would become apparent is that a faithful ministry would be required to confront the powerbrokers in this church for their treatment of people. One need not jettison doctrine to do this; rather, adherence to the Scriptures will require it! A lack of careful pastoral oversight as well as formative and corrective discipline got Hodder’s church into the situation it was in.

More could be said, but perhaps this will suffice. This is not a great novel but an intriguing one which poses good questions for ministry today.

The Value and Importance of Pastoral Visitation, Responses to Thom Rainer

Recently Thom Rainer posted a column titled, “FIFTEEN REASONS WHY YOUR PASTOR SHOULD NOT VISIT MUCH.” I first heard about it from a former student who recognized that this column argued the direct antithesis of what I teach in my pastoral ministry class and what I advocate for at this site.

Thom has been helpful to many pastors, but this piece was deeply flawed and needed response. I discovered, however, that there was no need for me to respond since there are several good responses already written. Here are four good ones:

David Robertson at the Aquila Report, “The Pastor as Chief Visitor”

Gary Shogren, “Will it Kill Your Pastor if He Visits You?”

David Murray, “Pastoral Visitation a ‘Sign of Sickness’ and a “step Toward Death”?

Andrew Roy Croft, “15 Reasons Why Visitation is Vital for Your Pastor”

These men point out the historical and biblical problems with Thom’s argument. Of course, there can be a problem of people being too demanding in terms of visitation, but we must not lose the fact that pastoral visitation is central to the task of pastoring and has been recognized as such across the centuries of church history (which is often noted at this site).

Croft’s post is especially helpful in articulating the positive case for pastoral visitation.

For the Faithful Sufferer

I’m reading one of Samuel Rutherford’s letters each morning and am richly benefiting from it. What beautiful, powerful examples of pastoral care and counseling!

This morning I read his letter to Marion M’Naught from Anwoth, on July 21, 1630. Rutherford refers to the fact that she is suffering in some way due to her allegiance to the gospel, something not uncommon in those days. As I read Rutherford’s words, rich with biblical imagery and depth of insight, they made me think of faithful pastors walking through difficult times as church members oppose the word of God. I regularly speak with men in such situations and am in conversation with one now. How shall I encourage such men as they seek lovingly and patiently to lead people to the Scriptures only to be told, “I know that’s in the Bible but it won’t work,” or “I know the Bible says that but it won’t glorify God.” Those who have walked this valley know the heartache, the stomach churning and the anxiety not just for yourself and family but for the well-being of the people you are trying to serve. One brother invited critique saying he was simply trying to be faithful to the Bible and was told, “Well, that’s your problem.”

If you find yourself in a similar situation today, hear these words from Samuel Rutherford to one of his people almost four hundred years ago:

“Dear sister, do not faint; the wicked may hold the bitter cup to your head, but God mixeth it, and there is no poison in it. … I tell you, and I have it from Him before whom I stand for God’s people, that there is a decree given out, in the great court of the highest heavens, that your present troubles shall be dispersed as the morning cloud, and God shall bring forth your righteousness, as the light of the noontide of the day.”

“count much of your Master’s smiling.”

“patience, my beloved; Christ the King is coming home”

“my Master bade me tell you, God’s blessing shall be upon you for it; & from Him I say, Grace, grace, grace  and everlasting peace be upon you. It is my prayer for you, that your carriage may grace and adorn the Gospel of that Lord who hath graced you.”

Hold fast, brothers, and show yourselves faithful that the Lord might bless you at his coming. Remember whose praise you seek. One smile from Him will outweigh all the scorn the world can give. My Master bade me tell you, He knows you and your situation (Psalm 1:6), He is with you (Matt 28:20), and it will be worth it all. “Christ the King is coming home.”

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.