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The Bible Warned Us About This

It feels all too common. I open Twitter and find news I wish wasn’t true. I hope it’s not true. But as I read I realize, tragically, it is all too true. A well-known Christian leader has fallen. He wasn’t what he seemed to be. His sins, as the Bible promises, have found him out (Numbers 32:23).

I could list names, but you know them. We all do. Each one, whether in our theological tribe or not, causes grief. They seemed so gifted, so persuasive for Christ, so used by Christ. How could they do what they did? What will happen now? What else don’t we know?

Ancient Israel knew the feeling. In the Old Testament, we find the most complete biography of anyone in the ancient world: King David. From his anointing to his death, we live David’s life along with him through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and, perhaps more poignantly, through the Psalms. All of David’s life is before us—his righteousness and his sins, his faithfulness and his disobedience, his heroics and his failures. It’s all there for the reading and the re-reading.

As the story begins, 1 Samuel 16-26 tell of David’s ascent. Samuel anoints him as king. Saul welcomes him into the palace. Jonathan befriends him and helps him. When Saul eventually turns on him, God clearly protects and delivers David from all evil. He’s the golden child who can do no wrong. Even when his men plead with him to execute Saul as he is at the mouth of the cave, David strongly denies them. He will not put his hand against the Lord’s anointed. Not once, but twice, David proves he means it.

After David spares Saul’s life a second time in 1 Samuel 26, he refuses to return home to Israel. He still fears Saul, and rightly so. But instead of staying where he is, David flees to a surprising place: into the land of the Philistines, Israel’s arch-enemy.

Go read 1 Samuel 27. It’s not a bright spot in David’s life.

In fact, it’s difficult to know what to do with it. Faithful David seems lost. He gives himself over to a foreign king in a foreign land, hiring himself out as a mercenary. Though the cities he raids aren’t Israel’s, he lies about what he’s doing, kills everyone so no one can break his cover, and puts himself in a deeply compromising situation. It’s the kind of season of David’s life that he wouldn’t put on his resume. Reading it later on as a member of the nation of Israel would have surely been jarring. His actions seem so out of character. No inquiring God for direction. Just merciless killing and lying. By this point of the story, we’ve become fans of David. It was clear he was the chosen one, the king Israel longed for. But why does it feel like a different person in this chapter?

As commentator Dale Ralph Davis says, by the time we finish the chapter, we’ve likely become an angry reader. Perhaps we even feel betrayed by him. Who is this David? What is he doing? These are the kinds of things that we’d see on the back-alleys of Twitter today, the rumors we hope aren’t true.

David is a sympathetic figure. He’s relentlessly hunted by Saul. He’s away from home. David is as good a guy as a good guy can get. But now? He’s a disappointment. There isn’t even a mention of God 1 Samuel 27. That’s no oversight. It’s an insight into David’s mindset. Far from depending upon God in the wilderness, he’s left him to make his own path.

For all the questions we have about David, Dale Ralph Davis helps us see what’s going on inside our hearts as we read the story

Did you ever think that perhaps the writer is trying to correct your mistake? Yes, you, Bible reader that you are, may have fallen into the trap of hero worship, of looking on your pet Bible characters and exalting them too highly. Why should you be surprised, shocked, off ended? Why should you talk about “betrayal”? The text is saying that this chosen, anointed servant is made of the same stuff as all the Lord’s people. Must we throw out God’s kingdom because not only its subjects but even its premier servants are sinners? Karl Gutbrod is right: the text will not allow us to view Saul with only contempt and save nothing but admiration for David; the text resists every attempt to make David the mirror of all virtue.[1]

What Davis says about looking on our pet Bible characters and exalting them too highly has sprung out of the Bible and into the Church. We do this all the time, don’t we? A gifted preaches rises to prominence and we jump on the bandwagon. We don’t mean to make more of him than we ought, but it happens anyway. His leadership seems impressive. People come to Christ from his preaching. He moves us deeply, and we thank God for him.

Then it crumbles.

Heroes fall apart.

All but one.

And that’s the point. That’s where a chapter like 1 Samuel 27 can help us. There is only one hero. Others may good models in some areas, maybe even in most areas, but all but Christ are fallen.

The Bible warned us about this. We could overlook David’s actions here, but even if we do, we cannot when he takes advantage of Bathsheba and kills her husband. David’s sins, too, will find him out, and the whole nation will be impacted.

Putting our faith in someone other than Jesus will inevitably lead to disappointment. Yet we do it anyway. That’s why it hurts so bad when our heroes fall.

The solution isn’t to never have a hero. I don’t think we can live that way. We need someone to look up to. We just must be sure we’re looking to the right one. Jesus is all the hero we will ever need with none of the failures of all the others.

He will never let us down.

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, Focus on the Bible Commentary (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2000), 286–287.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at thingsofthesort.com



Considering Grief

My kids love stories, and honestly, I would argue that we all do.

I remember around the age of ten, my dad would read a chapter of the Hardy Boys before bed. As my brothers and I listened, we would become engulfed in the story. However, as exciting as it was, there was always a quiet depression that would begin to set in upon realizing that the chapter was ending. 

As we consider grief there are three points that we should consider:

  1. Realizing Grief Will Come

Many times, the experience of a loved one’s death will bring the same sense of Déjà vu as their story comes to an end. Since the fall, loss has become a continued reality. The scriptures explain that as the descendants of Adam, humanity longs to do whatever can be done to add to the story of life. In the book of Hebrews, the author explains this by saying, that because of the fall, all have been placed under the bondage of death and will do anything and everything to outrun it. (Heb. 2:15) However, just as God brought grace to the garden after the fall, there is grace for our grieving as well.

  1. Redeeming Our Grief

The good news, the grace, is that the scriptures also give the hope that there is One that has already outrun death on our behalf. When faced with grief, the story of redemption and the new Creation gives hope and comfort. Without the story of redemption pointing to the future, those who grieve must settle for memories of the past. Memories that, while they are wonderful to enjoy, only leave emptiness, longing, and sorrow. (1 Thess. 4:13) But it is in the story of redemption that graces for grieving can be found. Isaiah writes that Christ took our griefs and bore the sorrows that we could never bear. (Is. 53:4) Grief for the sins that we or a loved one committed were borne by Him. The grief over times of failure has been swallowed up by His success. The grief that the loved one has departed is turned into a hope that we will see them again. Because of Christ, even in grief, redemption can be celebrated.

  1. Resting in Peace

The time at the grave is utterly difficult and the pain of loss is terrible, but it is at an open tomb that we can find an unexplainable peace. As believers, we don’t have to grieve like the rest of the world. (1 Thess. 4:13) We know that because of Christ’s declaration that “it is finished”, we have the promise that the sting of death has been taken away. Because of this, we can rest in peace knowing that at the end of the book of the believer’s life, God has written: “to be continued.” 



How to (Actually) Reach Your City for Christ

This is a story about how a really discouraging Easter led to one of the healthiest seasons in the life of our church.

We had been working hard for months to plan the service, outreach events, and more. We spent money on door-hangers, invitation cards, and Facebook ads. Mission teams and church members went door-to-door, inviting thousands of people to our Easter services. Finally, when Easter arrived, I stood in our church lobby, eagerly waiting to see who the Lord would bring into our doors that day.

And after all of that effort, we had a whopping grand total of two first-time guests, one of which was a Christian visiting from out-of-town. Incidentally, neither of them heard about our services as a result of any of our expensive, labor-intensive “marketing” efforts.

After all of those weeks of planning and really hard work, we had one non-Christian from our city come to our service that day.

After a long morning of church activities, my kids fell asleep in the car while we made the hour-long trek to my parents’ home for more Easter festivities. And as our car rolled down the interstate, I began to reflect on the day.

That Easter, I was reminded that hosting big, splashy services wasn’t going to be an effective strategy for seeing lives changed in our post-Christian city. I realized that if we were going to see people come to Christ, it was usually going to happen as individuals reached out to their friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

So we launched an effort in our church, encouraging every member to read Mark’s Gospel with a non-Christian friend. I created some discussion guides to use, a simple tool to help our church members have confidence to open God’s Word with people that don’t know him.

In the past six months, our people have responded incredibly. More than half of our members have started one-on-one Bible studies with non-Christians, and God’s Word is going out to more and more people.

Jesus seemed to do ministry this way. He spent much of his time and energy investing in twelve and he frequently departed from a place once a crowd began to form (Matthew 8:18, Mark 1:38). In the same way, Paul’s letters to Timothy don’t contain practical guidelines on attracting a big crowd. Instead, they encourage Timothy to teach a few “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (1 Timothy 2:2). The norm in the Christian life seems to be the gospel going from one person to another. One at a time.

So pastors, work to equip every member in your church to “do the work of an evangelist.” Just consider these comparisons:

  • An attractional service enables a few people to use their gifts in a public setting. But if everyone in your church is engaged in evangelistic Bible reading, then everyone is involved in God’s work and using their God-given gifts.
  • An attractional service enables us to reach people one day a week. But if everyone in your church is engaged in evangelistic Bible reading, then we know God’s Word is going out from our church seven days a week.
  • An attractional service enables us to invite people to an event. But if everyone in your church is engaged in evangelistic Bible reading, then people are engaged where they already are. People may be uncomfortable to come a church service but are willing to read with a friend.
  • An attractional service enables us to reach a few guests every week. But if everyone in your church is engaged in evangelistic Bible reading, then we have the potential to reach many more. Everyone in our churches knows a bunch of people. What are we doing to equip them to share Christ with those people?

Whenever I encourage our church to read the Bible with a non-Christian friend, I always tell them that they will be surprised by three things:

  • You will be surprised about how equipped you are to do it. God has given you gifts. If you know the gospel, you can share it with others.
  • You will be surprised about how willing non-Christians are. Our church has been asking non-Christians to read Mark’s Gospel with them for six months, and I’ve only heard about one person getting rejected. People are willing to read the Bible and consider the claims of Christ.
  • You will be surprised about how much fruit comes. God’s Word never returns void (Isaiah 55:11) and faith comes through hearing the Word (Romans 10:17). When we share God’s Word with non-Christians, the Lord will act. And it will be glorious.

 

Pastors, you have been called by God to pursue a “ministry of reconciliation,” calling sinners to know the one true God (2 Corinthians 5:18). This ministry comes to us (and all Christians) “by the mercy of God” (2 Corinthians 4:1). So don’t hog God’s mercy; invite your church to get involved.



What I Have Learned About Pastoring Senior Saints

I recently visited with some of the senior saints in the church I pastor. I have been asking them this question: What do you wish young pastors knew about pastoring senior adults? The responses have been interesting but perhaps not that surprising. In this post, I will share some insights from these conversations and provide some practical ways, as pastors, we can love and lead our senior saints better. 

I sat with the wife of the long-time pastor of our church. Her husband has since gone to be with the LORD, and she has remarried, but this sweet 90-year-old saint shot straight. She said I’m old, not dead! During our conversation, I realized the danger of solely focusing on children, students, and families. The LORD has been blessing our church in recent months, and we have seen good and healthy growth. This growth has mostly come from families with young children. As we have seen this growth, we have intentionally invested in the children’s ministry. I fear we will unintentionally create age-specific silos if we are not careful.

Your seniors have wisdom and experience, not just in life but in their walk with the LORD. They do not want to feel like the old bull being put out to pasture, and sometimes this is the message we send them when we focus exclusively on the young families in the church. 

Another sweet widow, a woman who is nearly 85 years old, shared with me the reality of loneliness. She lives on a substantial piece of property just west of town. Her husband passed away several years ago as well as her only child. She has no close relatives and lives alone on her property. I visited her on a Friday and took my wife and three-year-old daughter. This sweet lady was so happy to have someone spend time with her. It is easy to get caught up in the craziness of our pastoral schedules, but dear pastor, do not miss the joys of visiting with your senior saints!

Finally, just a few days ago, I was sitting in a hospital room with our last remaining charter member. She is 95 years old, and her mind is still sharp as a tack! She was joking with me about the music she wants to be played at her funeral. She said, “Don’t play any of the new stuff; I want the old hymns!” Now our church does an excellent job at blending hymns of the faith with new, theologically sound music. Her statement was not out of displeasure for what worship sounds like at our church. Instead, it was a glimpse into her fond memories of church as a child. The reality is we will all be there one day. We will think back about how things used to be and will likely have specific songs of the faith we want to be sung because they hold a special place in our hearts; this is ok! 

Out of these conversations, I want to give you three pieces of practical advice as you pastor older saints. These three points are areas I have been convicted of over recent months as I have had these conversations. I hope you will find them edifying and encouraging.

  1. Do not forget about your seniors. They are at a point in life where they are being dismissed. They are losing their physical mobility and freedoms, such as living alone and driving. These are huge aspects of life that, as a young pastor, I tend to overlook. Remember what it was like when you wanted a seat at the table? Now think about how you would feel if the chair you had waited for was pulled out from under you. I believe that is how many of our seniors feel, and our job is to pastor them through this challenging season. 
  2. Make time for your seniors. We must remember our older saints are often raised with the idea that the pastor is a big deal. We must also not forget our older saints are often alone. If they think you are a big deal because you are their pastor, and if they are generally alone, 30 minutes of your time can significantly impact them. I feel so convicted about this takeaway that my wife and I are committing to spending intentional time with every one of our senior saints in 2023.
  3. Be gracious to your seniors. Generational gaps are significant because each generation has its own culture. This is why we hear things like “back in my day” and “this is how we have always done it.” These are cultural cues. Be gracious to your seniors as you navigate change. Our identity is connected to our cultural realities, and when you change the church’s culture (which is often needed), you threaten identities. Be gracious. 

I am so grateful for the senior saints the LORD has blessed me with at our church. They are the cream of the crop! I desire to pastor them well, and I hope these points of practical advice might help you as you pastor your senior saints. For their good and God’s glory, amen!



Serving Jesus: Our Effort or His?

I have often struggled understanding what I should leave up to God’s sovereignty and what is my responsibility. 

Some people emphasize God’s sovereignty in salvation almost to the exclusion of human responsibility. For example, when William Carey planned to go to India as a missionary, he was told by one minister, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” I disagree. That does not square with my understanding of the Great Commission, nor did it square with Carey’s understanding of God’s sovereignty.

Other people take human responsibility to the extreme. Rick Warren once said, “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” Really? I don’t even understand the keys to my own heart, let alone others’ hearts. This sentiment places far too much emphasis on human ability to manipulate and persuade.

When it comes to sanctification, or growing in our salvation, some teach a very passive approach. Let go and let God, they say. Proponents of the “Higher Life” movement have argued that to actively strive against sin is to operate in the flesh. Conversely, others stress high standards of spiritual discipline to the Holy Spirit’s work, so that people end up trying to live the Christian life in their own strength. For instance, the Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts boasts of its “non-optional principles of life which, when followed, will result in harmonious relationships in all areas of life.”

It seems I’m not the only one who struggles to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Where is the biblical balance? Or, more to the point: do I need to get busy working on becoming Christlike, or should I simply pray and ask God to do the work in my heart?

Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13. I’m indebted to Steven Cole in his handling of this critical text.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

Previously, Paul had exhorted his readers to live in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). This gospel-worthy life is itself a picture of a life that is at work serving Christ and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is not passive but active, because of its deep rootedness in relationship with Jesus Christ. Let’s see how Paul describes this lifestyle in Philippians 2:12-16.

Verse 12: Our Human Responsibility

Paul begins with a call to obedience: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence…” (v. 12a).

Paul begins by commending the Philippians for their obedience. He has been discipling them, mentoring them and teaching them how to follow Christ, and he is pleased with their progress.

But what if Paul never returns? That is a real possibility, given Paul’s legal predicaments. So he calls them to obey his teaching regardless of his presence.

Paul is looking for unprompted obedience. I once developed a program at our Christian school with the goal of producing in students what we called “unprompted service.” The goal wasn’t just for students to serve but to develop the habit of serving—of being a person who student who sees needs around them and simply serves, unprompted by a leader. 

This is similar to what Paul was looking for. He wanted his Philippian disciples to follow Christ while he was watching and when he wasn’t. He wanted their obedience to Christ to be free from Paul’s prompting.

Paul’s second call was to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12b).

The day we put our faith in Christ, we obliged ourselves to obey him too. By embracing Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, I removed every other god off the throne of my heart and welcomed him to assume the throne of my life. Since then, I have been working out the implications of that decision in my life.

Working out our salvation does not mean we are working for our salvation. No one can receive eternal life by working for it. Rather, as Cole helpfully points out, the only people going to heaven are those who have recognized that they were lost and called out to God to save them through the blood of his Son Jesus. Yet once we receive Christ, we enter the process of sanctification, whereby believers begin adopting and demonstrating their new life in Christ.

In fact, the ultimate aim of evangelism is not simply to avoid hell but to obey everything Jesus has commanded us: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died for his stand against Nazism, said, “Only the believer is obedient and only those who are obedient believe” (Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, 1st edition., Armchair Theologians Series [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009], 44).

Paul expects his readers to understand that while we are not saved by our works, we are saved for good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10).

“Working out our salvation,” then, means living out the faith we have in Christ. It is virtually the same thing as letting our manner of life be worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27)—a life-long process.

Make no mistake about what Paul desires. He wants real change in the lives of the Philippian believers and he is calling them to obey and work hard to make those changes. This is our human effort side…But wait, look at verse 13.

Verse 13: God’s Side of the Equation

“[F]or it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13).

Paul just told us to obey and work hard. Now he defines the way in which that obedience and hard work happens. And the ability to obey and work out our salvation is supplied by God himself!

It is God himself that produces both our desire (or will) to live righteously and our ability to work for God’s good pleasure. This is all of grace. 

Sometimes I catch myself thinking, I know that my salvation is from God, but now it’s up to me to do the hard work of living for Jesus. But the Dutch Reformed minister Andrew Murray (1828-1917) had this to say: “No, wandering one, as it was Jesus who drew thee when he spoke ‘Come,’ so it is Jesus who keeps thee when He says, ‘Abide.’ The grace to come and the grace to abide are alike from him alone.”

In other words, the same grace that God supplies for us to come to him in faith is the same grace that transforms believers and enables them to live obediently and righteously.

Paul described his own conversion this way. He went from being a church destroyer to a church planter because of grace (Galatians 1:13-15). So too, Paul calls the Philippians to obedience and good works empowered by God’s grace and not merely their own efforts.

Thus, we return to our initial question: Do I need to get busy working on becoming Christ-like, or should I pray and ask God to do a work in my heart?

The biblical answer is: yes.



How Guilt and Shame Can Bring Us Closer to God

When Adam and Eve rejected God’s goodness and authority by eating the forbidden fruit, their eyes were opened and they suddenly recognized that they were naked. This new, hyper-self-conscious reality set in motion a series of actions, each one a strategy to hide the shame that they felt over what they had done.

The more they hid themselves, the more distant our first parents became from God and each other. Their nakedness, once a symbol of freedom, self-expression, and mutual enjoyment, suddenly became a symbol of shame. No longer feeling safe about being seen, they sewed together fig leaves to cover themselves.

To keep up the façade, Adam ran and hid from God. When God found him, Adam proceeded to make excuses and shift blame toward both God and Eve. To God, he says, “I was afraid when I heard your voice, so I hid.”

Quite audaciously, Adam continued, “The woman you gave me, she presented me with the fruit, and so I ate it.”

Eve also deflected responsibility, declaring that she ate the forbidden fruit because the serpent deceived her (see Genesis 3:1-13).

This theme of deflecting, blaming, and hiding has remained with us since Eden. Painfully aware of our own nakedness and shame, we, too, have become masters at cover up. Instead of fig leaves, we use other, more sophisticated strategies to cover the things about ourselves that we don’t want others to see. If anyone really gets to know us, if the real truth about us is exposed, surely no one—not even God—will love or desire us. If we let our guards down, we will surely be found out, abandoned, and forgotten.

And yet, we may be surprised to find an opposite dynamic also occurring in Scripture. Instead of running and hiding and creating masks with which to cover their nakedness, the Bible’s most exemplary saints shed their masks in favor of transparency and self-disclosure. Not only do they confess their sins, blemishes, and weaknesses privately to God; they also openly confess the worst things about themselves to each other and the world.

In the telling of his own story, Jonah reveals himself to be a grumpy, entitled, selfish, and hate-filled man (Jonah 1-4). Paul shares openly about his ongoing battle with coveting, bellowing out, “Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7:21-24) He also reflects on his prior life of being a blasphemer, persecutor, and violent man and concludes that he must be the worst sinner in the world (1 Timothy 1:12-17). Psalm 51, a beautiful and painfully transparent confession of sin, is introduced with the words, “A Psalm of David…after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” With these words, David admits his lust for Bathsheba and how he had adulterous intercourse with her while she was the wife of one of his most loyal soldiers and friends.

Jonah, Paul, and David were not seeking attention through melodramatic over-sharing. Rather, they saw the value of sometimes putting their worst foot forward as a way to show a watching world how long, high, wide and deep is the love of God. They wanted their readers, whoever they would be throughout the world and through the centuries, to become convinced that where sin abounds, the grace of God abounds even more (Romans 5:20). In other words, they viewed the transfer of grace as not only something that happens between a people and God, but also between people and people. It’s a community affair, not a private affair.

Their confessions are a setup for celebrating grace and for reassuring people everywhere that if God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness can reach and transform the likes of them, it can also transform any kind of person.

They wanted to convince the world that the one, true God forgives not just once or twice, but repeatedly, and that he forgives not just so-called “little” sins, but also supremely shameful and significant ones.

God, these ancient saints want the world to know, is above all gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in love (Psalm 103:8).

As Brennan Manning has written, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”

So how about us?

Do we believe these things like Jonah, Paul, and David did?

Do we believe them enough to shed our fig leaves and come out of hiding?

I pray we can go there.

Because the health of our souls depends in it.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at scottsauls.com.  



Historical Portraits of Pastoral Care: Shepherding Like a Reformer

Shepherding the body of Christ means equipping his people to live skilled and holy lives within their individual contexts. Teaching of the word is of first importance; theology takes precedence. Theology helps bring clarity by which one can then engage in ministry more effectively, accurately, and faithfully. However, pastoral care and community life are not to be neglected.

Martin Luther, a key player in the Reformation, better known for his battles with the institution of the Catholic Church, was above all a shepherd of God’s people. Luther once said of pastors, “Unless your heart toward the sheep is like that of a mother toward her children—a mother, who walks through fire to save her children—you will not be fit to be a preacher. Labor, work, unthankfulness, hatred, envy, and all kinds of sufferings will meet you in this office. If, then, the mother heart, the great love, is not there to drive the preachers, the sheep will be poorly served.”[1] Luther did not merely write theological treatises, he was also concerned with helping people relate to God in all of life’s circumstances. He counseled many in person and through letters. For example, Luther wrote a treatise on prayer for his barber after revealing to Luther that he struggled with prayer.[2] In 2011, the late reformed theologian, R.C. Sproul, wrote an illustrated children’s book about it, attesting to its staying power.

In the same era John Calvin, though most famously known for his contributions in forming much of reformed theology, was also a physician of the soul. A sermon of Calvin’s on 1 Timothy 5:1-3 expressed his heart for pastoral ministry:

And therefore, if we want to do our duty toward God, and to those who are committed to our charge, it is not enough for us to offer them the doctrine generally but when we see any of them go astray we must labor to bring him to the right way. When we see another in grief and sorrow, we must go about to comfort him. When we see anyone who is dull of the Spirit, we must prick him and spur him, as his nature will bear.[3]

Theodore Beza, a disciple of Calvin and reformation theologian in his own right, embraced his mentor’s teaching on pastoral ministry and preached similarly on pastoral care:

It is not only necessary that [a pastor] have general knowledge of his flock, but he must also know and call each of his sheep by name, both in public and in their homes, both night and day. Pastors must run after lost sheep, bandaging up the one with a broken leg, strengthening the one that is sick …In sum, the pastor must consider his sheep more dear to him than his own life, following the example of the Good Shepherd.[4]

Jesus Christ took on humanity in part to identify with us in our struggles, so we too are to identify with the people to whom we minister. Jesus taught his disciples to go out into the world. Jesus came into our neighborhood, so we should go into those of others as well (John 1:14). Jesus went to weddings and funerals, and ate meals in homes with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10). Jesus’s ministry was inclusive in the sense that he never favored one class over another (Romans 2:11). Whether one was on the fringes of society, or a teacher of the law, Jesus ministered to them passionately. Likewise, the Apostle Paul’s personal commitment in ministry in this area of shepherding is powerfully stated by way of metaphor in 2 Corinthians 11. Here Paul likens his ministry to a father, preparing a bride for her husband. It is the goal, duty, and honor as ministers of God to take on this task. To prepare for Jesus a lovely, pure bride.

It is our duty to participate in Christ’s edifying work continuing the building up of his people and maturing them. This was what drove Paul’s ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:15; Romans 11-15; Colossians 1:28) and it is what should drive ours as well. This involves giving attention to the details of people’s lives, envisioning what the Spirit has designed for individuals to do and become, and the gifts with which the person has been endowed (Ephesians 4:8). We do this because it is Jesus’ essential ministry with each of us individually to build us up more into his image and equip us for ministry.

For some of us, pastoral care may be a strength, but for many of us it is not. Whether we fall into one camp or the other, we all need reminded, as these voices from church history show us, that our ministry does not make Christ present. We can only do ministry because Christ is alive and has called us to enter his ministry as a conduit from which his grace is poured out (John 15:5-6). It is his ministry that will heal, speak, bless, save, comfort, and guide. So may we as pastors step out in faithful obedience to care for the flocks entrusted to us.

[1] Martin Luther, “Ministers,” in What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 1959 repr. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1991), 932.

[2] Martin Luther, “To Peter Beskendorf,” in Luther: Letters of Spiritual Council, ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), 124-30.

[3] John Calvin, “Measured Rebuke”, in Sermons on 1 Timothy, trans. Robert White (London: Banner of Truth, 2018), see 551-566.

[4] Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 281.



Seminary Is Not For You

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 2:4-5

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. – 1 John 5:21

This August, I began my third year of seminary. So many things about my life have changed since endeavoring to complete a theological master’s degree over two years ago. The last two years of my life pursuing seminary have been the most sanctifying yet. God has made me a weaker Christian, or at least I now recognize how weak I am more than I did two years ago; and gladly so. The Christian life is about increasing in weakness so that we might know that any strength we have is a gift from God. 

In other ways, so many things about my life are still the same. In the classroom and the online discussion forum, I struggle to put to death my desire to prove myself over and above my male peers because of my gender, to remember that the Holy Scriptures are God’s gift to His people to be thoughtfully cherished, not a collection of texts to be academically conquered. Even now as I immerse myself in year three of my theological education as a weaker, more sober Christian, I find myself asking the questions I realize I should have been asking a long time ago. Why am I really here? Who am I even doing this for? Brothers and sisters in seminary, I invite you to consider these questions alongside me. Should our answer be anything except, “for the church of God, which he obtained with His own blood,” then we have missed everything (Acts 20:28). 

Pursuing a theological education is no small task. It requires our time, demands our financial resources, consumes our mental and emotional energy, and commands a growing realization of how little we truly know. Yet, I know that I am guilty of relishing thoughts of my own perceived intellectual superiority, forgetting far too often that the theological education I am receiving is not mine by right, but as a gift. It is just as much about shaping my affections as it is about equipping my mind. Theological education should cause in us a desire to submit ourselves to God as those approved, workers who have no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Even still, we too often plaster 2 Timothy 2:15 on the walls of our classrooms and common spaces and fail to write it on our hearts, bind it as a sign on our hands, let it be as a frontlet between our eyes (Deuteronomy 6:6, 8).

Are we really submitting ourselves to God when we seek to conquer our brother or sister in the discussion post forum over a tertiary theological issue? Do we truly find ourselves as workers who have no need to be ashamed when we fail to be doers of the same divine word we hear each week in our Old and New Testament survey classes? Are we really rightly handling the word of truth when we treat the Bible as a collection of proof texts for the sake of winning the ever-evolving culture war arguments in the Twitter comment thread? 

While claiming to fulfill Paul’s command in 2 Timothy 2:15, we have neglected all the other commands that come with it: to not quarrel about words, to avoid irreverent babble, to be vessels for honorable use, to flee youthful passions, to pursue righteousness, to not be quarrelsome, to be kind, to able to teach, to patiently endure evil, to correct our opponents with gentleness (2 Timothy 2:14, 16, 22-25). When did God’s people let the gift of theological education become such an idol? How have we become a people bereft of wisdom and gentleness, quick to speak and to anger while being so slow to hear? When we make theological education an idol – when we make it about ourselves and pursue it for our own interests – we become like the man who looks at himself in the mirror, goes away, and immediately forgets what he looks like. The church does not need mere hearers of the word; she needs doers of the word (James 1:22-25). 

Brothers and sisters, our theological education is not for us; it is for the local church. She needs our integrity just as much as she needs our theological aptitude. She needs men and women set on pursuing the deep things of God for her interests and the glory of the Triune God over and above their own interests (Philippians 2:4). Is this not what 2 Timothy 2 is really about? Is this not what it means to have the mind of Christ? (Philippians 2:5)

So as we engage in the deep work of theological education, let us remember the church. Lifelong service to her and for her is why you and I are really here. With the hearts and souls of God’s people on the line, the stakes are far too high for us to forget her.



What’s in a Name?

Ninety-nine years is a long time to wait for a new name. Most men make a name for themselves well before. Through their work, they conquer their field and make their contribution. Through their family, they establish their progeny and expand their influence.

But for Abram, it was a different story. We meet him in Genesis 12, where God calls him to go to a land he will show him (Genesis 12:1). He was a foreigner in a strange land, unknown by the world, childless, landless. In a world that depended so much on one’s family line, he was as nameless as they come.

The irony is the name Abram carried meant “Exalted Father.” Would he ever live into his name? That question constantly nagged. In his seventy-fifth year he heard a word from God and followed him into a new land, chasing promises from a God previously unknown but one whom he deemed trustworthy, Abram put all his chips on God’s square. What had become of the gamble? So far nothing.

But the promised remained. Not only did it remain, but it was also constantly reinforced. God kept coming to Abram, bolstering his word with covenants and signs and everything else. In Genesis 17, God did something new in Abram’s life. He changed his name. Abram had 99 problems, but a name wasn’t one. Exalted father ain’t too shabby, unless, of course, God says it’s not enough.

God changed Abram’s name by shoving two extra letters before the “m.” Abram became Abraham. “Exalted Father” became “Father of Multitudes.” A century-old childless man. Is that a joke?

The author of Hebrews said no. In Hebrews 6:17, he spoke of the promise God made to Abraham. “When God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath.” God oathed himself to Abraham. “Exalted Father” becomes “Father of Multitudes,” and what made the difference was the God who made the change.

Leon Kass comments, “The change of Abram’s name, offered in conjunction with God’s abundant promise, is in fact deeply significant. ‘Abraham’s very identity is now inextricable from God’s promise of abundant offspring. His being depends on God’s speech. If God breaks his promise, Abraham ceases to be Abraham.’”1 Abraham cannot be Abraham unless God is faithful. It all depends on the promise.

And what of Abraham’s part in this? Kass goes on. “As for Abraham (and his seed), the obligation of the new covenant is remarkably simple: keeping the covenant simply means remembering it, that is, marking its token or sign in the flesh of every male throughout the generations, by the act of circumcision.”[1]

You could argue circumcision isn’t nothing. That’s true, it’s not. But it isn’t something anyone earns. It is something that happens passively. It is a sign of the covenant, a reminder that God has made his claim on his people.

The only way Abram becomes Abraham is by the power of God through the never-failing word of God.

The only way we become who we must become is by the power of God through the never-failing word of God.

[1] Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 312.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at thingsofthesort.com



Thoughts about Christmas Sermons

When missionaries arrive in a cross-cultural context, they look for cultural interests that may serve as points of contact for gospel proclamation. The preacher already has points of contact built in to his calendar through holidays and special cultural days. It seems to me special sermons connected to those days are strategic opportunities and a preacher would be wise to take full advantage. I agree with expository preaching legend, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who wrote in Preaching and Preachers, “I believe in using almost any special occasion as an opportunity for preaching the gospel.”[1]

I have often thought if Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day did not exist in American culture, I would set aside a time in the course of the preaching year to biblically focus on each topic. The fact each is on the cultural calendar provides an easy way to connect with a wide range of listeners as we biblically discuss each topic. Of all opportunities for special occasion sermons, I have found Christmas to be a uniquely powerful cultural opportunity. In our nation there are almost universally recognized sights, sounds, scenes, and foods associated with the time each year when we celebrate Christmas. What a pastoral gift.

Don’t Squander the Gospel Opportunity

With all I have said about the opportunity a holiday like Christmas affords the preacher I must also acknowledge it is an opportunity frequently squandered. Some of the worst sermons in a calendar year are Christmas-themed sermons. Below are some frequent mistakes to be avoided:

  • Do not preach the cultural Christmas story rather than the biblical one by adding details that are not in the biblical text.
  • Do not act as though celebrating the cultural aspects of Christmas are essential or a measure of anyone’s spirituality. A person can worship the incarnate Christ without the cultural trappings of a tree, Santa, presents, and ugly sweaters.
  • Do not preach Christmas sentimentality, preach biblical Christmas reality (leave the former to the never-ending loop of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies).
  • Do not get so clever in crafting Christmas sermons that you stretch biblical characters beyond their biblical proportion and act as though their unrecorded psychological state is the point of the biblical narrative. I once heard a Christmas sermon from the perspective of the innkeeper (Now, where is that biblical text about an innkeeper?).

 

Take Full Advantage of the Unique Gospel Opportunity

Some preachers talk as though the yearly repetition of Christmas sermons is a problem. To the contrary, I think repetition is strategic and necessary. There is a sense in which the entire Old Testament narrative funnels toward the incarnation of God the Son in Bethlehem and then expands out again toward the ends of the earth. The apostle Paul describes the incarnation like this: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son” (Galatians 4:4). If the birth of Christ is a significant redemptive-historical hinge point, then preachers must never get too far removed from its centrality in telling any part of the biblical narrative. Retelling the story of Christ, including his incarnation, is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian preacher.

Preach the Uniqueness of the Christmas Message

No other religion has a message like the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took upon himself a human nature and body—fully God and fully man. Jesus is God, so he is to be trusted, obeyed and worshiped. Jesus is man, choosing to take on flesh and becoming subject to pain, hunger, sorrow, injustice, suffering, and even death. Thus, the salvation he offers is both of infinite value and a remarkable resource for believers in the midst of their pain and suffering. The Christmas message reminds us that our faith is not based upon what we do and offer to God but what God has done by coming to us and offers to us by grace.

Preach Christmas as Spiritual War

The initial promise of Christmas is found in the first proclamation of the gospel immediately after the fall into sin and the declaration of God’s judgement on sin: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The first gospel is a statement of victory through the birth of a child in the battle between God’s kingdom and Satan’s parasitic kingdom. The Old Testament storyline follows the battle to preserve that Messianic line in the face of Satan-inspired attacks.

When Jesus was born, Herod’s fear of the ancient gospel promise led to a bloodbath in Bethlehem. When Immanuel, God with us, was crucified and resurrected, he gave his disciples his Great Commission, reminding them his Immanuel promise would see them all the way to the end of the age (Matt 1, 28). The conflict of kingdoms ends when, “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth” (Revelation 12:9). Jesus was born as the warrior baby who would crush the head of the serpent and deliver his people through the triumph of his crucifixion, resurrection, and the consummation of his kingdom in the second coming.

Preach Christmas as a Call to Christian Courage

Do not skip the genealogies when preaching the Christmas message. The genealogies remind us that all biblical and human history points toward the one whose birth is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Matthew’s Gospel portrays the birth of Christ as the genesis of a new creation (Matthew 1:1, see also John 1). The genealogy that opens Matthew’s Gospel indicates that Jesus is the one who fulfills the gospel promise to Abraham by his grace in redemptive history (Matthew 1:1-17).

Matthew then explains the identity of the one whose identity should transform our lives. Jesus of Nazareth is the supernaturally virgin-born Messiah God, who saves his people from their sins, who is God with us. His presence makes unbelieving kings like Herod fear, and makes poor teens who trust him fearless. Angels, shepherds, Magi, Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans are transformed by his presence to boldly speak in his name. This is the courage of Christmas, our hope is found in the supernatural, incarnate savior, whose presence is always with us.

Biblically faithful Christmas sermons proceed with a desire to reach lost people who may be more likely to attend church services than at other times. Preachers tend to understand the need that Christmas sermons both edify believers and evangelize the lost with the gospel message. We also understand that the expectation is that Christmas sermons are about Christ no matter the text. Focusing on Christ’s first coming in the incarnation, naturally drives preachers to point out that he came to be crucified and raised for sinners and that his first coming leads to his second coming when he consummates his kingdom.

Come to think of it, we might be better off if we allowed our approach to Christmas sermons to shape all of our sermons.

[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 205.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at davidprince.com