Tuesday, October 31, 2006

For All The Saints

Last year I posted two items concerning Reformation Day and our need for a new Reformation. This year let me look more towards the idea of All Saints Day. I am not big on an official liturgical calendar, but it is right for us to pause to consider the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. We impoverish ourselves when we act as if ours is the first (or even second or third) generation to seek to follow Christ and think through what it means to be His people. Below is a hymn that I love- I use that word advisedly. I did not grow up singing this hymn- but I wish I had. I remember where I first heard it and how it moved me. Since I have found all the verses from Cyberhymnal. I am almost always moved to tears when contemplating this hymn. I offer it for your contemplation. You can listen to the original tune here (some have produced new tunes for the hymn, but I do not think they are an improvement on this one).

We are not alone in this. Our brothers and sisters have gone before, and noticing their faith and endurance and God’s provision to them will aid us on our way. We are not alone. We are a part of the great fellowship of all the saints! And one day we will celebrate together in the presence of the Savior of us all. Let us give thanks for the example of those who have gone before us (Heb 13:7).

For All the Saints

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
All are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!
Words: William W. How, in Hymns for Saint’s Days, and Other Hymns, by Earl Nel­son, 1864.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Letters of Geerhardus Vos, A Review

Letters of Geerhardus Vos , ed. James T. Dennison
(P&R Publishing, 2005), hb., 274 pp.

This is an interesting book. Before reading it I knew of Vos as a key figure in the development of biblical theology, but I knew little else. I was drawn to the book precisely because I knew little about him, because letters tend to reveal the man more than anything else, and because I saw that it included some of his poems (I had not known he had written poetry). I enjoyed reading the book.

The title of the book may mislead you because the contents are actually both more and less than what one might anticipate. It is more in that the book contains significantly more than letters. It includes a 75 page biography, a 20+ page bibliography, and 10 pages of poetry. It is less in that most of the letters contained in it are not that profound. You do not find here the sort of thing you find in Luther’s Letters of Spiritual Counsel, or Rutherford’s Letters, or Newton’s Letters for example. These are not typically letters of counsel but just regular correspondence. The letters still contain interesting material, but probably not much to hold the attention of the average theological reader.

Probably the most useful part of the book is the biographical sketch. The Preface states, “This volume contains the most thorough account of the life of Geerhardus Vos published to date” (11). I am not in the position to judge this claim, but this would make the sketch significant. Apparently, not much has been known about Vos personally. Dennison refers to Vos as “the mysterious premier Reformed biblical theologian of the twentieth century” (11). It becomes apparent fairly soon that one significant reason for interest in Vos has to do with his place in the split within the PCUSA and the exodus of some Princeton faculty to found Westminster. Vos had been the teacher of Machen, Van Til, Murray and others but he did not leave Princeton himself. Vos expressed his appreciation of and support for Machen and the others but did not follow them. Apparently this has puzzled some and various speculations have arisen to explain. Dennison clearly seeks to argue the view that Vos could see through the power agenda that truly underlay some of the pastors who were supporting Machen. According to Dennison, Vos could see this though Machen could not. Vos agreed with Machen theologically but could not support the worldly motives and objectives of these others. According to Dennison, the power agenda of these other pastors eventually came out.

Now, I must first admit that I do not know enough about this episode of Presbyterian life to adjudicate between these opinions. I can though make two observations. First, whether or not Dennison is right he certainly overplays his data at places. Various times he slides from simply suggesting possible motives of various people to asserting the motives as clear fact. At one point he even posits what Machen may have been thinking while laying on his deathbed! Of course this neither means that Dennison’s analysis is right nor wrong. It does mean that this is not a real objective analysis.

My second observation, is that if Dennison is just basically on track, there are significant parallels (and thus lessons) for other denominations, particularly my own- the SBC. The warning that work for theological fidelity will typically be mixed with lesser motives is a sane, realistic reminder. Vos then emerges as a reminder that our allegiance is to the gospel not any other agenda- even a conservative one. He is also a reminder that we cannot defend the gospel by acting in anti-gospel ways.

I found the biographical sketch interesting reading. The writing ranges from hagiographic, to melodramatic, to rousing prose. The best parts, in my opinion, are where Dennison shows Vos articulating the centrality of the gospel and the ways in which we so easily accommodate to another, cultural message. For example Dennison reports, “…it was the tepid, indeed vacuous, preaching that distressed him more. The gospel was crowded out from the pulpit and Sunday school in the interest of cultural relevance and contemporary moralizing” (59, in footnote 164). Surely this is true in far too many churches today as well. A key theme that emerges is the way in which a culturally or politically conservative message easily passes for the gospel. We need this warning in our day.

Well, this review is already too long by bloging standards. I have already posted one quote from this book and will plan to post a few more separately. Let me simply conclude by listing in summary what I think are the benefits of this book for people in my circle:
- Strong reminder of the centrality of the gospel and the danger of mere moralism
- warnings about accommodation with culture, particularly on the conservative side of things
- warnings about denominational politics and the compromises which allure so
- greater awareness of a key figure in the history of biblical interpretation
- A picture of handling oneself in dialogue with others

Shelf Life, an Encouragement to Read

Following on from the previous post on reading, let me strongly recommend a little book by George and Karen Grant entitled Shelf Life: How Books Have Changed the Destinies and Desires of Men and Nations . This book is not a sustained treatise on the need for reading but a reflection on the value and enjoyment of reading. It includes various thoughts from the Grants on what they have done in their family to encourage reading, brief looks at historical figures who loved books and (perhaps most significantly) many, many quotes from various authors on various aspects of the value of books.

For the good of the church, indeed for the good of civilization in general, we need to return to being a reading people. This book can serve as an unassuming resource to that end and can provide useful quotes in encouraging others in reading. I have amassed seven pages of quotes from the book, but here are a few of my favorites:

“It is an old and healthy tradition that each home where the light of godliness shone should have its own bookshelf. Blessed is the man or woman who has inherited such a cultural and spiritual bequest.”
-John MacLeod (1872-1948)

“A well-read people are easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern, but difficult to enslave.”
-Baron Henry Broughman (1778-1868)

“Perhaps the greatest gift any father can bestow upon his children, apart from the covenant blessings of parish life and a comprehension of the doctrines of grace, is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives a knowledge of the world, and it offers experience of a wide kind. Indeed, it is nothing less than a moral illumination.”
-Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)
I have posted some other quotes at The Children’s Hour, my blog on children’s books.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Spurgeon on the Need to Read

Check out the Spurgeon quote posted by Justin Taylor. This is another great statement on the value and importance of reading. Here’s a piece of the quote:

How rebuked are they by the apostle! He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has been preaching at least for thirty years, and yet he wants books! He had seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had a wider experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He had been caught up into the third heaven, and had heard things which it was unlawful for men to utter, yet
he wants books! He had written the major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Andrew Blackwood on Revivalism

Here is another selection from the same Blackwood piece. His critique is probably not new to most. What I found interesting is thathe was saying this 50 years ago. Furthermore, the eccentric methods he describes have often found their way into our regular meetings today. We desperately need to be reminded that God does not need a "show" to reach people. The Bible is clear that God is pleased to save people through the clear preaching of His word (e.g. 1 Cor 1:18-2:5). However, many today will think your church insufficient if you do not use the latest technology and have all the latest trappings. Technology in itself is not wrong but the question is, "What are we relying on?"

“I might enumerate still other reasons why the revivalism of other days alienated many persons whom we longed to reach. They would not have objected to innocent horseplay among boys in a barn, but the critics of revivals saw no connection between the stunts that often preceded a ‘soul-winning’ sermon and the spirit of the message itself. When the man in the pulpit wishes the one in the pew to fall down on his knees and give himself into the hands of God, as young Isaiah did in the Temple, all the steps that lead up to a decision ought to be in harmony with the holiness of the occasion. This does not mean that any part of an evangelistic service ought to resemble an old-time funeral, full of grief and despair. Neither does it mean that a man ordained of God to pray and preach ought to compete with a vaudeville show of
the coarser sort. ‘Let all things be done decently and in order.’

Other objections have to do with the prominence of human factors. New Testament evangelism stressed the presence of the Living Christ, with His pierced hands, and the power of the Holy Spirit. The human agents relied chiefly on prayer, preaching, and personal work. They did not strive for the glory of the workers, many of whom we do not know by name. In America at times the stress of revivalism has fallen on men, money, and machinery. Such activities properly call for expenditure of money on no Lilliputian scale.” (292)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Andrew Blackwood on Outreach

I recently stumbled across an essay by Andrew Blackwood entitled “Evangelism and Preaching.” It was in an older book edited by Carl F. H. Henry, Contemporary Evangelical Thought (1957). I had only seen Blackwood’s name in passing and simply knew he was a popular author in the area of pastoral ministry from that time period. I thumbed through the essay, however, and was struck by what I found! Blackwood in one section addressed weaknesses in American approaches to revival meetings. He raised several criticisms. One was the failure of serious discipleship and nurture arising from an inordinate attention to gathering crowds and building the program. He then addressed the issue of whether these ‘conversions’ truly resulted in disciples. It was striking to me to read something written 50 years ago making the very same points that manyof us are trying to make today.

“Whatever the reason, many church members today give no visible evidences of having been born again. In New Jersey a church bulletin recently compared the statistics of the home congregation with those of fifty years before. With a resident church membership practically twice as large as half a century ago, attendance at morning worship averages less than half the attendance fifty years ago; attendance at the church school has fallen off still more; there is at present no evening service, and no mid-week meeting, whereas such gatherings were formerly well attended, as such things went in that older time. Meanwhile, what has taken place? Year after year, the congregation has welcomed many new members, including boys and girls of proper age. Few of these boys and girls have formed the habit of attending their own church. And yet this congregation has helped to swell the official statistics that lead Protestants to boast that the number of our church members has kept increasing by leaps and bounds!” (294)

“With the work of evangelism, hand in hand, ought to go the most careful Christian nurture, especially by the pastor. Why else did the Apostle keep writing ‘letters to young churches?’ Guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul knew that the didache ought to follow the kerygma. In the Jersey congregation, as among the Ohio churches, a study of the facts would show that the falling off in church attendance, and in other visible signs of invisible grace, came during a period when the local minister felt too busy to do pastoral work, either by home visitation of by counseling at the church. Since 1925, when I ceased to serve as a full-time pastor, I have ministered as a pulpit supply in all sorts of churches….Again and again I have come home with the conviction that our noblest laymen wish the dominie [pastor] would quit doing many other things not wrong in themselves, and begin to take loving care of the home flock, especially the weaker sheep and the little lambs.” (295-296)

This is a good reminder that the way to advance the kingdom is by the faithful day to day work of teaching, preaching, shepherding and overseeing souls. The quick fixes rarely ever 'fix.'

Monday, October 23, 2006

God at Work, Even When We Can't Se It

Anyone who has preached much knows the agony of it. Hopefully you know the ecstasy as well, but there is often a hollowness that I feel after preaching. You have just laid out your heart with all the earnestness you have, and as you sit down you are painfully aware of the inadequacy of your efforts. And this feeling is augmented because the inadequacies which are so evident to you have just been publicly displayed before the people of God! Of course much can be learned from this. For one, I have had to train myself not to make too much of it. It can be good for learning humility. I also must flee again to the cross being reminded that Christ alone is sufficient and if He has been lifted up then all is well. I also have had to face the reality at times that I should have been more diligent in some area of preparation. One danger though is in being too hard on ourselves. We can only do so much.

In this vein the following quote has been encouraging to me. It comes from Gardiner Spring, and it describes the beginning of great revival in his area. Much can be gleaned from this quote. My point here is first of all my ability to identify with his emotions in the first paragraph. Note it well! This pastor who is regarded as one of the giants would linger in his pulpit after the service because he was embarrassed to face his people, fearing that they would rebuke his preaching. He was laboring faithfully but felt no power, no result. However, at that very time God was indeed at work. So it often is. God is not required to allow us to ‘feel’ when he is at work. Of course it is great when you can sense that the people are with you. But we must not be dependent upon that. We must preach the word and trust God to be at work.

The year 1814 was a year of great labor and deep solicitude. Many a time after preaching did I remain long in the pulpit, that I might not encounter the reproaches of the people of God for my heartless preaching, and many a time, as I left it, has my mind been so depressed that I have felt I could never preach another sermon. But I did not know to what extent the Spirit of God was carrying forward his own noiseless work . . .
God was already beginning a precious work of grace among the people. He had taken it into his own hands, and was conducting it in his own quiet way, convincing the church and the world that it is ‘not by might, nor by power, but by his own Spirit,’ as the Author and Finisher of the whole. The spirit of grace and supplication was poured out upon the people, and they ‘looked on Him whom they had pierced.’ The weekly prayer-meeting and the weekly lecture were full of interest. Days of fasting and prayer were occasionally observed, and a Saturday evening prayer-meeting was established by the young men of the church, for the special purpose of imploring the divine presence and blessing upon the services of the approaching Lord’s day . . . Our Sabbaths became deeply solemn and affecting. We watched for them as those who ‘watch for the morning.’ I verily believe we anticipated them with greater pleasure . . . expectation, than that with which the sons and daughters of earth ever anticipated their brightest jubilee. (Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 205-6)
Be encouraged brothers. God is at work. He honors His word. So, as you face a Monday, remember that if you have taken up the Scripture and preached what it said, God is at work.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The John Newton Project

I have recently received information about an exciting new work in Britain, The John Newton Project. The Project is in the process of making available on their site the complete works of Newton, including previously unpublished material. What a resource that will be! Their objective, however, is not merely historical. Their mission statement is:

The Project has as its objective the transformation of society through faith in Jesus Christ, using the life and works of John Newton as one great example.

Yes! This is the purpose of historical study- to see how God used servants in the past so that we might be better prepared to serve God today.

The Board of Reference for the project includes Timothy George, John Piper, J. I. Packer, John Stott among others. This is an exciting project and one to watch.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Thielicke’s Little Exercise

One book that I recommend to all who study theology (pastors, academics, etc.) is Helmut Thielicke’s A Little Exercise for Young Theologians . Along my way in theological education I came across this book and was greatly helped by it. I said then that if I ever taught I would require this book, and now I do. Once a year I work back through this little book with a group of students. Just this week I did this once more. In order to encourage you to read (or re-read) this book, let me share one student’s response to the book:

“At the risk of overstatement, I consider this short book to be one of the most meaningful and personally applicable that I have read. Thielicke’s clarity of thought and colorful expression led me into one of the most deeply convicting reading experiences of recent memory…. I can think of few books in the category of this one, which seemed to look with a penetrating gaze into my very life and gently rebuke me for the secret impurities and ‘gnostic pride’ that have long been locked away in my heart concealed behind doors of humble clichés and gentleness of speech.”

Well put. Thielicke particularly deals with the problem of pride in studying theology and of thinking that because one has studied certain issues he has mastered them. While upholding the value (indeed necessity) of theological study he punctures the arrogance which so easily arises.

Much could be said about this book, but I will simply point out that Thielicke does not merely give a warning. He gives sound advice for pursuing theological study in a devotional and relational manner, for uniting head and heart. He encourages engagement with the people of God and regular reading of the Scriptures. It is not fancy, but this is the way. Here are a few quotes.

“But it is all the more important to insist constantly and almost monotonously that a person who pursues theological courses is spiritually sick unless he reads the Bible uncommonly often and makes the most of opportunities by which, in preaching and Bible classes, that cornerstone is made visible.” (pg. 40)

“How all-important it is that a vigorous spiritual life, in close association with the Holy Scriptures and in the midst of the Christian community, be maintained as a background for theological work…” (pg. 37)

“…insofar as we are determined to be true theologians, we think within the community of God’s people, and for that community, and in the name of that community;--how shall I say?—we think as a part of the community itself…” (pgs.4-5)

Amen! He is no true theologian who does not work from within the church for the good of the church.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Piper on the Sin of Comparing

It is unlikely that anyone reading this blog has not already seen Justin Taylor’s posts over at Between Two Worlds. Typically I do not point out posts from the really popular blogs because I figure you have already seen them. However, this time I will make an exception this time. Justin’s recent post on John Piper’s comments on the sinfulness of comparing ourselves with others is a key item for us pastors to read. Drawing from John 21:18-22 and referring to his fellow speakers at the recent Desiring God conference Piper stated:
What is it to you that David Wells has such a comprehensive grasp of the pervasive effects of postmodernism? You follow me.
What is it to you that Voddie Baucham speaks the gospel so powerfully without notes? You follow me.
What is it to you that Tim Keller sees gospel connections with professional life so clearly? You follow me.
What is it to you that Mark Driscoll has the language and the folly of pop culture at his fingertips? You follow me.
What is it to you that Don Carson reads five hundred books a year and combines
pastoral insight with the scholar’s depth and comprehensiveness? You follow me

Failure to grasp this truth is in fact often what leads to the preaching of other men’s sermons as we have discussed here before. It is what leads to envy of others success rather than simply seeking to be faithful in our own calling. This is a particularly good word.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Smell of Perfumed Assemblies

Just today I came across a used copy of Karl Menninger’s Whatever Became of Sin? This is one of those books I have often heard about but never read. So I opened it to have a glance. A previous owner had placed a note in the front pointing to a poem on a certain page. The poem, printed below, is a searing critique of the modern Western church as it is typically practiced. I think it is a good word for us to hear headed into the weekend.

"The Smell of Perfumed Assemblies"
By Elmer F. Suderman

Here they come,
my nonchalants,
my lazy daisies,
their dainty perfume
disturbing the room
the succulent smell
seductive as hell.

Here they are
my pampered flamboyants,
status spolied, who bring
with exquisite zing
their souls spick and span
protected by Ban,
their hearts young and gay
decked in handsome cliché,
exchanging at my call
with no effort at all
worship for whispering
God for gossiping,
theology for television.
Baptized in the smell
of classic Chanel
I promote their nod
to a jaunty God
Who, they are sure,
is a sparkling gem
superbly right for them.
There they go
my in-crowd
my soft-skinned crowd,
my suntanned,
so so elegant, swellegant,
natty, delectable,
suave, cool, adorable

Meninger continues:
Yes, damned. Saved by grace perhaps. Certainly not helped by my cowardly silence. A word of reproof? A suggestion of sin? A confrontation? The parable of the rich young ruler? Something to disturb the Country Club coziness and complacency of my perfumed assembly? Dare I? (pp. 202-03)
Two points need to be made. First, we must indeed speak the difficult word, point out sin and call for repentance. We must not allow ourselves to become merely advocates of a cultural religion blessing the people in our narcissistic pursuit of self-fulfillment. Faithfulness to the Scripture will not allow us to do so.

Secondly, though- neither must we allow ourselves to be self-righteous ‘condemnation-mongers.’ Let us first confess that the convicting words of the Bible speak not simply to ‘them’ but to ‘us.’ They wield the scalpel of God’s words most effectively who have themselves known its bite. Furthermore, while the Biblical message begins with confrontation and the call to repentance, it does not end there. We must be clear and sharp concerning sin. But, if we leave people there we have failed to preach the gospel. Having exposed sin, let us clearly, passionately point people to the cross, where damned people like us can find forgiveness and the power to change.

The gospel requires both notes: judgment and hope, rebellion and redemption, sin and forgiveness. Either one is diminished by the absence of the other. Let us then sound forth both with vigor.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Do the Next Thing

Here is a poem which contains much wisdom for Christian living in general and is very helpful for pastoral ministry as well. I found it in Elisabeth Elliot’s The Shaping of a Christian Family (pg.178-179). Elisabeth Elliot’s writings have meant a lot to me along the way, and I have often heard her discuss her “do the next thing” philosophy. I did not realize until recently that her language came from this poem which her mother had. There is much simple wisdom here. Do you find yourself on Monday feeling your soul is scorched, terribly aware of your inadequacies, fearful of what is to come? Since God is still in heaven and His steadfast Word declares His love for you, just carry on and do the next thing. Take the next step of obedience. Do you worry how your children will turn out, what the future will hold for your church, how the finances will look at the end of the month? Resist the allure of self pity, and just take the next step of obedience. We are typically given enough grace just for the next step. Fret not about what lies around the bend. Perform faithfully the next step, and we will make it home safely in the end.

This poem is a balm to my soul.

From an old English parsonage down by the sea
There came in the twilight a message to me;
Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven,
Hath, it seems to me, teaching from Heaven.
And on through the doors the quiet words ring
Like a low inspiration: “DOE THE NEXTE THYNGE.”

Many a questioning, many a fear,
Many a doubt, hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, and guidance are given.
Fear not tomorrows, child of the King,
Thrust them with Jesus, doe the nexte thynge.

Do it immediately, do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His hand
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all results, doe the nexte thynge

Looking for Jesus, ever serener,
Working or suffering, be thy demeanor;
In His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
The light of His countenance be thy psalm,
Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing.
Then, as He beckons thee, doe the nexte thynge.