Saturday, 31 May 2014

I want to be a better preacher

Justin Taylor posts some lines from a letter John Wesley wrote to a young minister who was a poor preacher.  Taylor notes Wesley's advice to this young pastor amounts to "arguing that better reading is not a sufficient condition for better preaching, but it is a necessary one."  As someone who considers myself, if not exactly young, at least relatively young in my ministry experience and my pulpit maturity, I like to glean what I can from men who were and are great preachers and faithful ministers.  Here Wesley tells his young friend that he will never advance in his preaching without a concerted effort to read more, read deeply and read broadly.  You can read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

10 feet thick and 15 feet deep

Trevin Wax has some wise words over at Gospel People about going to Scripture regularly to sustain your spiritual life and not going there just to find an outline when you are required to preach.  He also reminds against a practice that is all too common, perhaps especially among young, reformed men.  That is the practice of turning immediately to a favourite preacher, teacher or author whenever we have a theological or exegetical question when instead we ought first to be going to the text of Scripture and digging, cross-referencing, wrestling, praying for wisdom and understanding, and then, after we have shown ourselves approved, a worker who rightly handles the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15; 3:14-17), only then do we go confirm with preachers and teachers who we trust.  Here is an excerpt from his timely reminder:
"A couple years ago, an elderly woman in our church asked me a theological question I hadn’t considered before. Rather than going to the Bible, I went straight to the Internet, where I began searching for a respected pastor’s views on the subject. Before I found his answer, I was struck by how wrongheaded and dangerous my approach was. I had rushed to hear the preacher before I had slowed down to hear the text."
Of course, not everyone will have loads of time to search out every question that arises via full-on, in-depth cover-to-cover Bible study.  But, any one who stands in the pulpit or who teaches in some setting, ought themselves to be doing the heavy lifting of scriptural exegesis and theological mining and not merely doing a quick internet scan and then echoing what their heroes might say on the subject.  If that is the way we preach and teach the Word, where will be the ten-foot thick, fifteen-foot deep concrete convictions that are the foundations upon which we build the assertions and applications of our sermons? 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Can the dead praise God?

Peter Leithart notes here that, through the person and work of Christ in the cross and resurrection, there is a fourth dimension added to the biblical universe.  Previously there was only sea, earth and heaven but in Christ, "under the earth" has been added to the realms which may praise God (Phil 2:9-11).  How is this?  Only in Christ's overcoming death is the realm of the dead now a realm that may praise God.  Leithart implies the answer to the Psalmist's question, "can the dead praise you?"  In Christ, the answer is now a resounding YES.

How do those "under the earth" praise God?  How do the dead offer up praise?  Answer:  All those in Christ who have died are not merely dead (John 11:25-26).  For the child of God, to die is to be with Christ (Phil 1:21, 23), even if not yet to have a resurrected body - thus, those "under the earth" who are praising God speaks of those who have died and whose bodies are buried but whose spirits have gone to be with Christ (Rom 8:19-25).  In his resurrection, Jesus, the first born of many brothers, has triumphed over death and all who are united to him in faith share in his resurrection life.  Will we still die?  Yes, physically.  Our bodies will go under the earth.  They will even become earth.  But our physical death will not be final just as Jesus' own death was not final.  Paul reminds us that, as we died with him, so we live with him (Rom 6:1-14).  And Paul reminds us that, even though our bodies go "under the earth", we will one day be raised physically and given a glorious new body (1 Cor. 15:12-49).  But for those in Christ, until we receive those glorious new bodies, we will be under the earth praising God.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

How do Christians articulate anguish?

Peter Leithart is always good at looking at Scripture in ways that upend our breezy and trite interpretations, or that shake us out of our unspoken but practical belief that much of the Old Testament is just not relevant for us any longer.  He has done it here in his brief but profound observations on Psalm 38, where he reminds us that often the Psalms don't assuage our grief or alleviate our sense of being under the heavy hand of God, but they do give such feelings voice in a biblical way that is both authentic and obedient.  Leithart helps us to see that what we might call the Psalms of lament are both pastoral in their effects as well as Christological as they remind all who suffer under the heavy hand of God that Jesus knows that suffering in full and has given ultimate meaning and assured (if yet future) relief to all such others who suffer in faith. 

Friday, 23 May 2014

Christ's death was not divine child abuse

Jason Helopoulos, author of the very good A Neglected Grace: Family Worship in the Christian Home, has written a good piece responding to those who would accuse the penal substitutionary view of the atonement as being a form of divine child abuse.  You can find his wise and biblical answer here

To his answer, I would only add that I believe the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, while biblically faithful and true, does not say all there is to say about the atonement.  There are elements of recapitulation, of moral influence, of satisfaction, of participation, of ransom and 'Christus victor', in the biblical atonement narrative, which begins in Genesis 3, not in the Gospels.  Someday I would like to systematically work through each of the views or theories of the atonement and present the scriptural evidence for each one.  But for now, I would say I that rightly and biblically understood, these various theories of the atonement, each with its own proponents quoting proof texts at each other, do not contradict each other but rather serve to give us a full orbed view of what Jesus' passion accomplished for the people of God.  This is not to say that every aspect of each theory of the atonement as they are put forth by their respective proponents are indeed faithful to Scripture.  Careful biblical study is required to reconcile many of the points of each view with the various points of the others.  And in reconciling these varied understandings, we also need to recognize that, if Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consumation is the meta-narrative of all history, the master story-arc of God's interaction with the human race, and it is, then it is in some ways beyond the abilities of human language and human reason in a fallen state to understand the fullness of what God has done for us in Christ and the cross.  Therefore the explanations and descriptions we find in Scripture of how salvation is accomplished are to a degree metaphoric (some likely more so than others), and it should not surprise us that no one metaphor or theme can contain or describe the fullness of the reality of Christ's saving work.

Neither should it surprise us that the triune Creator and Redeemer God of the universe, who himself is three persons in one God, would do many things when he does one thing.  It should not surprise us that, when he cuts the incomparable diamond of redemption and fixes it in the complex setting of fallen human and redemptive history, we cannot take in its full beauty when we view only one of its facets.  Christ's cross is a jewel that must be viewed from many vantage points to fully appreciate its glory and its perfections.  Any view of the atonement that has no room for other views that are also firmly biblically based serves only to diminish the fullness of what God has done for us in Christ when he rescued us from sin, death, condemnation, hell and from his own righteous wrath toward sin.  It seems to me that more "both/and" and less "either/or" is required in our study of the atonement. 

All that said, any view of the atonement that excludes penal substitution, where Christ takes the Father's righteous and just punishment of sin upon himself in our place, not only amputates perhaps the chief and uniting among all the aspects of the atonement, but it handicaps its adherents in their understanding of the holiness of God, the seriousness of their own sin, and the helplessness of anyone to do anything about reconciling the two apart from the sovereign and total grace of God in Christ.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Thinking about certainty, uncertainty, and the sovereignty of God in a hospital room

I found some things I wrote just over 3 months ago, as Trina and I sat in our hospital room in Vancouver, hundreds of miles away from our four children, and uncertain about the future for our newest child, at that point just under 25 weeks along, in the midst of a what the doctors called a "high-risk pregnancy":
Here we are in a circumstance in which we have no certainty, don't know what is going to happen next, etc.  We "have to rely on God" in such a circumstance.  But really, everyone is always in the midst of such a circumstance.  Everyone is always in the midst of a circumstance in which they must constantly trust God.  Even when nothing about their circumstance seems particularly extraordinary or difficult or abnormal.  No one ever knows what will happen next.  No one ever knows what we are currently being kept from.  We are not really conscious of all the ways we are being carried along and sustained, even in the supposedly mundane of everyday.  Even when we think we know, we don't really.  Only God knows the future of course, but he is also the only one who knows the present in a truly comprehensive way.  Even when circumstances are "normal" and "routine" and we have everything "under control" we don't know.  But we know who does, and, more than that, we are known by Him. 
A truth we both took a lot of comfort from while we were in the midst of this circumstance is that, no matter how unexpected the situation we find ourselves in the midst of, God is not the God of chances but the God of certainties.  This truth is especially timely when doctors are daily talking of chances, percentages, statistics, likelihood, etc. 
There are no uncertainties with God and therefore there are no uncertainties for the believer.  There are only two types of certainties:  those God has let us know already (his revealed will and word in Scripture, those events which have already come to pass in life and history, etc.) and those firm and certain things that he hasn't shown us yet (those events that haven't yet come to pass), or may never show us (the plans and purposes he has ordained according to the counsels of his wisdom and will).  He may never tell us "why" but he has already told us "Who" - who is in control of all that has not happened yet but which is just as certain as that which has.  Placing our trust in the infinitely powerful, all knowing and good, kind, loving Father is better than an explanation.
About seven weeks after this was written, our baby, Jack Wesley Martin Glover, then 31 weeks along, died an hour and a half after being delivered by C-section.  We spent another week in the hospital while Trina recovered from surgery.   At the end of that week, we returned home and were reunited as a family.  As a family, we have shed many tears together, and as parents, Trina and I have attempted to answer many questions from our children (ages 9, 8, 5 and 3).  A month and a half after returning home, surrounded by family and friends, we buried Jack.  Life goes on, but it is different, probably mostly because we are different.  Experiences like this change you.  It's not our first loss of a loved one, but each time is different and unique.

Two months after the day of our baby son's birthday and death, we can still say that trusting in our loving and wise heavenly Father is better than an explanation.  To know that he is working all things out for the good of those who know him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28) is better than demanding to know how he is working everything out. We trust he is working it out, and that's enough.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

I asked The Lord, that I might grow

I asked The Lord that I might grow

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know;
And seek more earnestly His face.

Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair!

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He'd answer my request;
And by His love's constraining power,
Subdue my sins--and give me rest!

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part!

Yes more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe!
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds--and laid me low!

"Lord, why is this!" I trembling cried,
"Will you pursue your worm to death?"
"This is the way," the Lord replied,
"I answer prayer for grace and faith."

"These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set you free;
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you may seek your all in Me!"

                         - John Newton

Monday, 5 May 2014

Psalm 90

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
     in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
     or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
     from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You return man to dust
     and say, "Return, O children of man!"
For a thousand years in your sight
     are but as yesterday when it is past,
     or as a watch in the night.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
     like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
     in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are brought to an end by your anger;
     by your wrath we are dismayed,.
You have set our iniquities before you,
     our secret sins in the light of your presence.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
     we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
The years of our life are seventy,
     or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
     they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger;
     and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
     that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O LORD!  How long?
     Have pity upon your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
     That we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
     and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
     and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
     and establish the work of our hands upon us;
     yes, establish the work of our hands!