Saturday, May 27, 2006

United at Justification

Last Friday I was privileged to speak at a pre-conference pastors’ luncheon at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in the Memphis area. St. Andrews will be holding a conference this summer on the topic of Justification with Dr. Tom Nettles as the speaker. Wayne Herring and Doug Barcroft, pastors at St. Andrews, have become burdened about the lack of understanding of the basic gospel in evangelical churches, and believe that Justification is the appropriate point for unity among Protestants. I have been encouraged just to meet these two fellow pastors. I think they are entirely right that evangelicals in America are in real danger of completely losing the objective gospel and that proper ecumenism among Protestants can be accomplished by rallying around the basic truths of the gospel like justification. This central gospel is our core message anyway, so unity here will be significant.

The meeting itself was very encouraging. About 50 pastors attended. I know we had various sorts of Presbyterians (PCA, PCUSA, ARP), an Assembly of God pastor and several Southern Baptist pastors. Other denominations may have been represented as well. Wayne and Doug were clear about the fact that we held denominational distinctives which were important to us and there was no need to minimize those. Our unity is in the core gospel. The spirit of the gathering was deeply encouraging. My task was to speak to this gathering on the importance of Justification. Many things could be addressed (and I am sure Dr. Nettles will cover them!), but I chose to simply speak to the basic issue. Here is a brief outline of my remarks:
Bildad’s question in Job 25:4- “How then can man be right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure?”

Justification- how can guilty sinners be restored to favor with a righteous God

This is no merely academic exercise. This concerns how people can be saved! Brothers, as those charged to watch over souls and to act as messengers of God, we dare not be flimsy or uncertain here. The eternal fate of our people depends on this!

From our definition several questions arise in our current context, several points at which key presuppositions of this classical definition are under attack or are overlooked.
1. We are guilty sinners- not merely errant children, we are guilty before God
2. We are out of favor with God, thus we are under the wrath of God
3. God as righteous must punish our sin- He cannot just overlook our sin

These are weighty issues, but for the brief time we have here I will take up one text which addresses each of these issues- Romans 3. We must be clear about the biblical witness of these issues or we will not properly grasp the gospel. Our debates on justification will be mere academic exercise with no real meaning.

Rom 3:9-20- The reality of sin, the totality of our depravity

Until we face the depth of the desperation of our condition we will lack power in our preaching, earnestness is our exhortation. We must feel the weight of our condemnation

Self-centered prosperity preaching cannot withstand the withering blast of this doctrine. All of a sudden we will not be able to bear a message that is all about us, because we are caught in sin. We need to hear of something or Someone outside of ourselves.

Jesus said he who is forgiven much loves much. Perhaps our self-centered,
apathetic condition in the church is due to a failure to consider how bad off we
are and thus a failure to realize just how much we have been forgiven.
Rom 3:19-20; 1:18; 2:6- The reality of God’s wrath against sin

We need God to rescue us from God. If we soft pedal the wrath of God we will never feel the glorious beauty of the gospel. This is what really brings home the glory of our rescue.

Understanding this issue is what will awaken true worship. If we understand this we will not need more gimmicks and hype to ‘get the people going’ for worship. Worship, because it is an expression of love, arises in response to truth.
Rom 3:21-26- An alien righteousness from outside of us, provided to us.
We need to understand that the problem with the gospel is not, “How could God condemn anyone?”, but rather, “How can a holy God forgive any sinful person?” This is particularly true in light of passages like these:
Exodus 23:7- ‘I will not acquit the guilty’
Proverbs 17:15- ‘He who justifies the wicked …[is] an abomination to the LORD.’
Justification explains how this happens.
Practical results of this doctrine:
1. No room for boasting (3:27-31)- Glory in this doctrine which destroys your pride! Gloat not in your understanding of this doctrine. The doctrine itself undercuts our pride.

2.Peace with God (5:1)- God is now for us! We are freed from the burden of perfectionism (language from Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation).

3. Celebration (5:2)- The gospel is the source of true worship.

4. No condemnation! (8:1)- Oh, how I need this truth- and how often.
“My Sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought-
My sin not in part but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord Praise the Lord O my soul”

A more complete exposition of this text can be heard here.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Pastoral Lessons from Oprah Winfrey?

I am a bit late in posting this but a couple of weeks ago USA Today ran a story entitled, “The Divine Miss Winfrey”. This is not really surprising but it was a revealing look at typical views of spirituality in our culture. What first caught my attention though were the letters to the editor a day or two later. The letters were printed under the title, What preachers can learn , and since I do not know how long the link will work I have pasted in the full text of the last letter:
Though I do not think Oprah Winfrey is the "spiritual leader for the new millennium," I am sure she is making, and will make, a significant contribution to the spiritual lives of many people who do not find what they should be getting from their churches.
Further, I anticipate a backlash from this article from preachers who are not cutting it. But instead of denouncing the premise that Oprah has a spiritual contribution to make, they should be embracing an opportunity to study what Oprah is doing that is making such a significant impact on the lives of so many people.
Perhaps Ms. Winfrey would be kind enough to offer seminars throughout the country for preachers who want to regain contact with the people they feel called to serve. If she would, I would like the opportunity to be the first to sign up.
The Rev. Brian A. Mahoney, Rockville, Md.
This is another example of the decline in the concept of what a pastor is and how the office is being shaped by the culture rather than by Scripture. “Making an impact” is a slippery category for measuring success. It tends to mean ‘drawing a crowd” and ‘getting positive reviews.” This though is not our goal. May we be deaf to the siren calls of culture and devote ourselves to the biblical tasks for us, as Eugene Peterson powerfully put it, word and sacrament.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wayland Reprint in the Works

In case you did not see it in the comment section of the last post, Solid Ground Christian Books is in the process of reprinting Letters on the Ministry of the Gospel and they are including in the same volume J. W. Alexander’s Letters to Young Ministers (if you follow the link to this book you will have to scroll down a bit to the book). Solid Ground does a great service to the church with the various books they reprint and this is no exception. The links will give further details about the books and authors. I spoke with Mike Gaydosh at SGCB and he said he hopes to have this book ready soon. You can pre-order a copy (as I have done), and pre-orders help to move the production along.

In case you are not yet persuaded that this book is worthwhile, here is yet another quote from Wayland. Keep in mind all the quotes I have mentioned have come from only one letter in the book! This quote beautifully captures a point I have tried to make that our people should be able to learn to read their bibles from the way they see us handle the text. No wonder than that so many today handle the Scriptures so poorly.
“But all this benefit is lost when a text is taken merely as a matter of form, simply as a motto, with which the ensuing discourse has no connection; or when some isolated phrase is taken as a text, and a large part of a discourse is employed in showing that an inference may be drawn from it which every one sees to be entirely alien from the obvious scope of the passage. Is it any wonder that men come to consider the Bible unlike any other book, a book of riddles, in which every sentence may be made to mean whatever the preacher pleases, and which no one but the preacher is able to explain? Is it any wonder that Christians lose all confidence in their power to explain for themselves a book which is susceptible of so great a variety of almost opposite interpretations?
And here it may not be inappropriate to ask, Why is it that expository preaching has so entirely died out among us? When ministers had comparatively little theological education, such preaching was very common. It was entirely destitute of theological learning, but it was simple and devout, and in most cases threw some light upon the subject, and, at any rate, generally induced the hearers to examine it for themselves. Now, when eight or ten years are spent in the study of language, and in preparation for the ministry, we very rarely hear anything of the kind. Can it be that after all this study men are unwilling to trust themselves to explain and enforce a paragraph of the word of God?”

Monday, May 15, 2006

Wayland on Preaching the Text

As is no doubt becomign apparent, I am quite taken with Francis Wayland's letter, "In What Sense is the Ministry of the Gospel a Profession." In fact I am thinking of ways to have it or the whole book reprinted. Here is another excerpt- good advice needed today on preachign in plain language, textual preaching, and preachign the intent of the passage. There is here a good rebuke of all those sermons which seem not to really need the text that was read before them!

"[In Scripture the minister] finds the ideas of God in the language of men. These he presents to the consciences of men. He must do it with plainness, simplicity, and with unshrinking fidelity, knowing not the persons of men, but speaking solemnly in the fear of God. To suppose that he can add to the impressiveness of the word of God, by strengthening it with the reasonings of men, seems to me to be arrant folly. No reason can every be so strong for any belief as the simple fact that God has said it.
All this, at least, is acknowledged by our universal practice. When we preach we always take, ostensibly as the basis of our discourse, some passage of the word of God. This is called a text; and without it, our communication may be an oration, a speech, a lecture, or an essay, but it is never called a sermon. But why take a text? Simply because we profess in preaching to unfold some idea of inspiration, and, on the authority of God, enforce it on our hearers. If this be not our intention we need no text at all; or we may as well take one from Bacon’s Essays or any other work, as from the Scriptures. This being so, it is not enough that we take for our text the words; we must take the ideas of the sacred Scriptures. It is not that some idea analogous to that in the text may be found in the Bible; we must endeavor to ascertain the precise idea communicated by the Spirit of God in the particular passage. It is not enough that what we utter may be true; we must, by manifestation of the truth revealed to us by God, commend ourselves to every man’s conscience." (p. 63-64)

Friday, May 12, 2006

More from Wayland

Here is another quote from Frnacis Wayland in his book Letters on the Ministry of the Gospel. This quote comes from a letter entitled, "Is the Ministry a Profession?" As some of thecomments on the last post ntoed this is like a prequel to Piper's Brothers We Are Not Professionals. May we heed this biblical exhortation!

"The minister is an agent [of] Almighty God. He is appointed of God to perform a special service, and to God he is responsible. He may preach so as to please his congregation; they may pay him punctually and liberally; they may applaud his efforts, and be proud of his talents, while both he and they, in this very thing, are odious in the sight of God; and he, especially, who has undertaken the cure of their souls, may be fixing upon himself the doom of the unprofitable servant. God has sent him to deliver his message to this people; has he delivered it? He may have all the while been delivering something else, or he may have delivered something like it, but so modified to please his hearers, or gain for himself a reputation, that God never acknowledges it as his communication to sinful men. The command of the Master is, that he preach the preaching which the Spirit gives him, whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear; and if he do not obey the command, however much men may applaud, he can expect nothing but the frown of an offended God." (p. 40-41)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Wayland on real ministry

Here is a very interesting quote from Francis Wayland’s Letters on the Ministry of the Gospel (out of print to my knowledge). Wayland ministered 1800’s, but his words are very pertinent today, especially the points on avoiding offense and making unconverted people comfortable by the absence of searching preaching. The point on cultural acceptability and financial stability trumping higher issues is one for us to hear as well.
“…an important change has come over the character and labors of those who appear before men as the messengers of reconciliation. . . . We have in the pulpit far more correct rhetoric than formerly; our ministers are better dressed, and much more familiar with the usages of society. . . . The terms of science and allusions to recent discovery are frequently used, either to enforce or explain the truths of the gospel. The worship of God by singing, accompanied by costly instruments, is frequently performed by salaried professional artists. Everything is in the highest degree decorous and proper. You may attend upon one of our churches for months without any danger of being offended by a single instance of false grammar. But little moral emotion is however aroused, nor does it seem to be much expected. On special occasions, on leaving the house of God you may hear the sermon applauded in terms such as these: ‘What a noble effort!’ ‘That was a beautifully written discourse.’ ‘What a brilliant train of thought!’ ‘That sermon ought to be published; it would give reputation to our society.’ The sermon, however, excites no particular discussion. It gives rise to small self-introspection. No man asks himself, What have I done, or What shall I do to be saved? It is a very rare occurrence for any hearer to be convicted by a sermon, or to be led by it to the cross of Christ. Such a result, as the
immediate effect of preaching, seems neither to be labored for, nor anticipated. Of those who attend the worship of God, I fear that the better part go because it has been their custom from youth. Some go for the respectability of the thing, others for the purpose of setting a good example, and all go expecting to hear a discourse on some serious subject to which a text from the Bible has been prefixed. This discourse is accurately written, and pleasantly delivered; tinged, it may be, with a reference to passing events, and sometimes with an allusion to authors that happen to be in vogue. If all this is successfully performed; if a fair proportion of the audience is wealthy and occupy a prominent position in society; if they pay their pew-tax freely and contribute respectably to the ordinary associations for benevolence; if they take good care of their minister, and provide liberally for his various seasons of recreation, the church is deemed to be in a flourishing condition. All this goes on year after year, and men seem hardly to suspect that these services were intended by Almighty God to be the means of rescuing them from hell and preparing them for heaven. The most that is accomplished is the pleasant occupation of the hour. Those who profess to be the disciples of Christ, and those who make no such profession, are equally at easy under the guidance of one who has assumed the care of their souls; while all are rapidly drawing near to the judgment-bar, and the great majority under the condemnation of the second death.” (p. 13-15)

Thanks to Brian Denker for the quote.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Prayer for Power on the Means of Grace, Newton

As we approach the Lord's Day once more, here is another great poem from John Newton. He reminds us of our utter dependence upon God to bless our efforts that they might be effective. This is a useful prayer we can appropriate.

A Prayer for Power on the Means of Grace
John Newton

O Thou, at whose almighty Word
The glorious light from darkness sprung,
Thy quickening influence afford,
And clothe with power the preacher’s tongue.

Though ‘tis Thy truth he hopes to speak,
He cannot give the hearing ear;
‘Tis Thine the stubborn heart to break,
And make the careless sinner fear.

As when of old the water flowed
Forth from the rock at Thy command,
Moses in vain had waved his rod,
Without Thy wonder-working hand.

As when the walls of Jericho,
Down to the earth at once were cast,
It was Thy power that brought them low,
And not the trumpet’s feeble blast.

Thus we would in the means be found,
And thus on Thee alone depend,
To make the gospel’s joyful sound
Effectual to the promised end.

Now, while we hear Thy Word of grace,
Let self and pride before it fall;
And rocky hearts dissolve apace,
In streams of sorrow at Thy call.

On all our youth assembled here,
The unction of Thy Spirit pour;
Nor let them lose another year,
Lest Thou shouldst strive and call no more.

Newton, John. The Works of the Rev. John Newton. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1841, p. 577.

Quoted in Worthy is the Lamb: Puritan Poetry in Honor of the Savior; Edited by Don Kistler and Joel Rishel (page 220)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"We Are Ambassadors for Christ". John Newton

While up with the baby late at night, I have found I can read a little poetry. Reading in Worthy is the Lamb: Puritan Poetry in Honor of the SaviorI came across some more really good poems. I have previously posted “Prayer for Ministers” by John Newton. Here is another great one from Newton directed to pastors once more. Don’t miss that the second verse is referring to the pastor. I hope this encourages and challenges you as it has me.

"We Are Ambassadors for Christ"
John Newton

Thy message by the preacher seal,
And let Thy power be known,
That every sinner here may feel
The word is not his own.

Among the foremost of the throng,
Who dare Thee to Thy face,
He in rebellion stood too long,
And fought against Thy grace.

But grace prevailed, he mercy found,
And now by Thee is sent,
To tell his fellow rebels round,
And call them to repent.

In Jesus, God is reconciled,
The worst may be forgiven;
Come and He’ll own you as a child,
And make you heirs of heaven.

Oh, may the Word of gospel truth
Your chief desires engage!
And Jesus be your Guide in youth,
Your joy in hoary age.

Perhaps the year that’s now begun
May prove to some their last;
The sands of life may soon be run,
The day of grace be past.

Think, if you slight this embassy,
And will not warning take
When Jesus in the clouds you see,
What answer will you make?

Newton, John. The Works of the Rev. John Newton. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1841, p. 580.