John Newton on Christian growth

The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever.

The work of grace is not like Jonah’s gourd, which sprang up and flourished in a night, and as quickly withered, but rather like the oak, which, from a little acorn and a tender plant, advances with an almost imperceptible growth from year to year, till it becomes a broad, spreading, and deep-rooted tree, and then it stands for ages. The Christian oak shall grow and flourish forever. When I see any soon after they appear to be awakened, making a speedy profession of great joy before they have due acquaintance with their own hearts, I am in pain for them. I am not sorry to hear them afterwards complain that their joys are gone, and they are almost at their wits’ end; for without some such check, to make them feel their weakness and dependence, I seldom find them turn out well; either their fervour insensibly abates, till they become quite cold and sink into the world again (of which I have seen many instances), or, if they do not give up all, their walk is uneven, and their spirit has not that savour of brokenness and true humility which is the chief ornament of our holy profession. If they do not feel the plague of their hearts at first, they find it out afterwards, and too often manifest it to others. Therefore, though I know the Spirit of the Lord is free, and will not be confined to our rules, and there may be excepted cases; yet, in general, I believe the old proverb, “Soft and fair goes far,” will hold good in Christian experience. Let us be thankful for the beginnings of grace, and wait upon our Saviour patiently for the increase. And as we have chosen him for our physician, let us commit ourselves to his management, and not prescribe to him what He shall prescribe for us. He knows us, and He loves us better than we do ourselves, and will do all things well.

-John Newton, “Letter to Miss M. Barham,” September 3, 1776

What do rejected people need to hear?

Our premise matters–especially when we intend to prescribe a remedy for suffering souls.

I came across this line in the promo for a Christian book study. File under MTD, therapeutic:

Rejection steals the best of who I am by reinforcing the very worst that’s been said to me.

Even if this kind of existential theft were possible (it’s not), consider the implications. First, the best of who I am–whatever that is–is assumed. I may not be told how much ‘best’ is part of me but it exists. It’s who I am. The very worst, on the other hand, isn’t me but what’s been said to me. Is it true? Again, I’m not told but I have no reason to assume a factual basis for it.

None of this is to cast aspersions on those who suffer from personal rejection and long for acceptance. We were created for meaningful fellowship on a number of different levels and the loss of that blessing is part of our groaning under the curse. In Christ and in Christian community we should be able to offer the comfort of personal acceptance through reconciliation (Rom 15:7).

But the Christian media complex has flooded the market with spiritual placebos complete with glowing endorsements and customer reviews. Maybe the prescription isn’t thoroughly biblical but it’s awfully hard to argue with success.

Thankfully, American Christianity hasn’t degenerated to bald pragmatism. I haven’t yet heard of any Christian author adopting ‘the end justifies the means’ as his ministry mantra. No one is that crass. But ‘Jesus justifies the means’ is a much easier sell and it keeps one in the mainstream of Christian ministry. And so we’ve come to a point where we’ll forgive almost any content or delivery method so long as the people get a little Jesus in the end [see Exhibit A].

And this brings me back to the blurb on rejection. Our premise matters–especially when we intend to prescribe a remedy for suffering souls. Assuming that Jesus is the remedy that follows the premise above, it’s hard to see how Jesus doesn’t become a  supplement to boost your emotional well-being. ‘The best of who I am’ is a pre-existing condition that just needs a booster against hurtful words. My best + Jesus is the cure for rejection because he sees what my haters don’t (or won’t). So sing it loud & proud:

True to who You are
You saw my heart
And made
Something out of nothing.

But beware the side effects of a quick fix. When everyone has a little best no one is “a wretch like me.” And yet it’s the confessing wretch with no good (let alone best) to speak of who finds acceptance while the man praising God(!) for the ‘best of who I am’ ends up rejected (Luke 18:10-14).

Maybe the first step to finding acceptance is hearing that I’m actually worse than the worst that’s been said to me.

Carson on the ‘encroaching roots of self-esteem’

…the continued drift toward privatized religion is a fertile soil in which to water the rapidly multiplying and universally encroaching roots of self-esteem . . . The drive to sort out life’s problems and my happiness along the axis of self-esteem banishes truth questions, makes feeling good about yourself more important than having a clear conscience, insists that your opinion of yourself is more important than God’s opinion, and fails to deal with objective guilt. In the Scriptures, a right knowledge of yourself is contingent on having in the first place a right knowledge of God.

-D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God

Death & distraction

We can’t escape death but that doesn’t mean we have to think about it.

As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years, Or if due to strength, eighty years, Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow; For soon it is gone and we fly away. Who understands the power of Your anger And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?  So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.{Psa 90:10-12, NAS}

For the longest time I’ve been struck by the melancholy wisdom in Psalm 90. Forget swimming against the current, this kind of thinking doesn’t even appear to be in the stream of our modern consciousness. Say what you will about today’s society but I doubt ‘wisdom’ and ‘sobriety’ are tags for our day.

But the truth of the matter is that human nature remains unchanged. At some point the stupefying sparkle of the iPhone and FaceTwit will be eclipsed by the lengthening shadow of our mortality. Distraction cannot drive away death.

What distraction can do, however, is offer a sort of palliative care for the soul. Absent an inoculation for finitude we choose to be anesthetized. At least this was Pascal’s contention in the 1600s. Reading this portion from Pensees it’s hard to decide if the man was an astute philosopher or a prophet for the technological age.

166 Diversion. Death is easier to bear without thinking of it, than is the thought of death without peril.

167 The miseries of human life have established all this: as men have seen this, they have taken up diversion.

168 Diversion. As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.

169 Despite these miseries, man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so. But how will he set about it? To be happy he would have to make himself immortal; but, not being able to do so, it has occurred to him to prevent himself from thinking of death.

170 Diversion.-If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and God.-Yes; but is it not to be happy to have a faculty of being amused by diversion?-No; for that comes from elsewhere and from without, and thus is dependent, and therefore subject to be disturbed by a thousand accidents, which bring inevitable griefs.

171 Misery.-The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously  to death.

On the bright side, there’s a market for this kind of biblical wisdom in late night comedy sketches. Use it well.


A valentine from Tolkien

Everyone needs a little Tolkien on Valentine’s Day.

On days devoted to love and romance and all that stuff we could use some wisdom from Tolkien.

Sometimes the answer is complex

Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

One of the things I enjoy most in my line of work is having someone ask questions following a Bible study or sermon. Usually, questions are a good sign that someone (a) has been listening and (b) is thinking more broadly about what was said. [I’ve always had questions about your teaching and preaching. –Shive]

Of course, sometimes a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer and we’re reminded that we’re probing mysteries rather than solving problems. What follows is part of an exchange–slightly edited–I had with a member who was thinking through Jesus’ statements to Nicodemus in John 3. Unless we want to force an answer onto the text, some questions have to remain open.

MEMBER: Why did [Jesus] often respond to people with statements that they would not understand? His conversation with Nicodemus is one of those times. Here Nicodemus comes, asking honest questions and seems to be searching for the truth and Jesus keeps answering his questions with weird things about being born a second time and the wind blowing but you can’t see it. Just seems a bit mean. Like [my son] coming and asking me a math question and I give him a calculus explanation.

ME: Great question! The reasons Jesus had for talking over the heads of his audience varies depending on the situation & context. In the case of Nicodemus, I’d probably want to make two observations. First, Nicodemus approached Jesus as if he had some measure of spiritual knowledge to render judgments about Jesus (3:2–Rabbi, we know that you have come from God as a teacher…). But Nic’s confusion about things he actually should know (3:10) demonstrates that he doesn’t possess the spiritual insight he claimed. Jesus’ “incomprehensible” answer demonstrates that the wise are really not all that wise and puts them in their place. Second, notice that Jesus connects Nicodemus’ lack of understanding to unbelief (3:11-13) so that we should probably consider that Nic’s confusion is due to more than childlike ignorance.

MEMBER: But all of this “kingdom of God” talk most Jews acquainted with Jesus coming as their conquering king. Without the H.S. leading and guiding, should they really have known these truths about the Spirit’s indwelling and a second birth? Not sure which prophet speaks of the heart of stone being replaced with a heart of flesh and no one having to teach his neighbor about knowing God because all men will know Him. So I know the OT does speak a little to all of this but really not in a straight forward way. So, should Nicodemus have really been able to understand what Jesus was saying?

Again, just thinking in terms of my kids. If I want them to understand something that is vitally important ot their well being, safety, life, etc I don’t think I am going to speak in parables. I think I am going to flat out tell them as simply as I need to what I need them to know.

ME: I don’t know that there’s a one-size-fits-all answer since various explanations are found in John’s story line:

  • Some ignorance was due to hard hearts (Jn 5:39-40),
  • some things only Jesus’ sheep would hear/grasp (Jn 10:24-26)
  • some things could have been known but weren’t until after the fact (Jn 12:16),
  • some ignorance was the inescapable result of God’s work (Jn 12:37-43)
  • some things were spoken figuratively so as to keep things hazy until further revelation was given (Jn 16:25).

Ultimately, God grants insight/understanding as a gift according to his purpose (Mt 16:15-17; Mk 4:11-12; Luke 24:31, 44-45).

The winds move fast

Last night: the greatest Super Bowl game in history.

This morning: SB51 stories headline

This evening: NBA basketball stories headline

SB51 doesn’t even hold the top spot for a day. Not 1 day.

Psalm 103:15-16  As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.  16 When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, And its place acknowledges it no longer.

Problem vs. mystery

The more God reveals who he is . . . the more mysterious he becomes.

Thomas Weinandy’s book on the doctrine of impassibility  has been on my wish list ever since I heard Carl Trueman reference it a couple(?) years back. It did not disappoint [thanks, AJ!]. I’m not sure if I’ll come back with any comments on the content (still ruminating) but I thought this helpful reminder was worth sharing:

Many theologians today, having embraced the Enlightenment presuppositions and the scientific method that it fostered, approach theological issues as if they were scientific problems to be solved rather than mysteries to be discerned and clarified. However, the true goal of theological inquiry is not the resolution of theological problems, but the discernment of what the mystery of faith is. Because God, who can never be fully comprehended, lies at the heart of all theological inquiry, theology by its nature is not a problem solving enterprise, but rather a mystery discerning enterprise…

Here we learn a primary lesson concerning the nature of revelation and theology. The more God reveals who he is and the more we come to a true and authentic knowledge of who he is, the more mysterious he becomes. Theology, as faith seeking understanding, helps us come to a deeper and fuller understanding of the nature of God and his revelation, but this growth is in coming to know what the mystery of God is and not the comprehension of the mystery.

–Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer?

Should we major in evangelism?

At least one local Christian in the Fountain City is doubting that evangelism is the Church’s most important job.

We interrupt your regularly scheduled Facebook lurking to bring you this important newsflash:

At least one local Christian in the Fountain City is doubting that evangelism is the Church’s most important job.

Apparently, our young churchman has a niggling suspicion that the priority placed on evangelism is short-sighted and rife with unintended consequences. Specifically, He worries that majoring on evangelism means minoring in discipleship, an arrangement not found in Scripture. After all, Jesus didn’t say “Go and evangelize” but “Go and make disciples” (Mt 28:19).

On the whole I think our agitator’s instincts are right, especially when we consider two misconceptions that plague too many evangelism campaigns:

  1. Evangelism ≠ converts. Unfortunately, many pep talks for evangelism conflate evangelizing with winning converts. Strictly speaking, to evangelize (Greek, euangelizō) means “to announce/proclaim good news.” Thus, whenever we share the gospel with someone we have done evangelism regardless of whether or not we win a convert. Failing to distinguish between act and result leads to the belief that we’re not evangelizing unless we’re seeing new people in the pews. Maybe, maybe not.
  2. In Mt 28:19 make disciples is the main verb, not Go. It’s not uncommon to hear someone explain the Great Commission as if it consisted of two commands: Go and make disciples. The effect is that ‘go’ is taken to signify our going out to win the lost (i.e. evangelism) while ‘make disciples’ is what we do once we get them in. So there’s evangelism and there’s discipleship.

    But Go is actually a participle in the Greek which draws its “force” from the imperative make disciples [Oh, you have them on the edge of their seats now. Tell them more! -Shive]. The point is that go is tied to make disciples which is the focus of the verse.

On biblical grounds I think evangelism should neither be conceived in terms of results (i.e. conversions) nor should it be considered apart from the broader work of discipleship. By all means, emphasize evangelism, but do it for the increase of disciples not converts.

The preacher’s dilemma (and our danger)

One of the most dangerous things we can do is sit through a sermon week after week.

In his commentary on Isaiah, Alec Motyer begins his discussion of the prophet’s call to ministry (6:9-13) by observing “Isaiah’s message and his task constitute, at first sight, the oddest commission ever given to a prophet: to tell people not to understand and to effect heart-hardening and spiritual blindness!”

After noting that Isaiah was criticized as a man “fit only to conduct a kindergarten” (28:9-10) Motyer goes on to offer this sobering insight:

It is clear that Isaiah did not understand his commission as one to blind people by obscurity of expression or complexity of message. He, in fact, faced the preacher’s dilemma: if hearers are resistant to the truth, the only recourse is to tell them truth yet again, more clearly than before. But to do this is to expose them to the risk of rejecting the truth yet again and, therefore, of increased hardness of heart. It could even be that the next rejection will prove to be the point at which the heart is hardened beyond recovery. The human eye cannot see this point in advance; it comes and goes unnoticed. But the all-sovereign God both knows it and appoints it as he presides in perfect justice over the psychological processes he created.

One of the most dangerous things we can do is sit through a sermon week after week.

Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS… (Heb 3:7-8a)