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“Secondary” is so unhelpful…
Interesting back and forth between Paul Levy (always mischievous, often thoughtful) and John Stevens (never mischievous, often thoughtful) on baptism and church practice. I just want to step one pace backwards though because I get to hear about a lot (well, a fair few, anyway) of ministers who don't know what they think about baptism. In fairness, I get this from wives rather than the ministers – the conversation goes something like this "Can you recommend anything on baptism, my Bobby doesn't know what he thinks" – this is Bobby who is 6 or 7 years into ministry!
I hope you're not Bobby! Baptism is, I believe, a secondary issue insomuch as Christians can disagree on it and still be friends – in fact, be more than friends (I once made Paul a cup of coffee from my coffee maker) – they can work together and – as Paul and John have been exploring – possibly even be in church together. But secondary, as I never tire of saying, does not mean unimportant. And ministers of churches should certainly know what they believe about this issue. It is scandalous that they don't given that it is a defining issue of the church. Now, I don't mean that every minister has to have every i dotted and every t crossed. And perhaps at any given point, a minister might be on a trajectory to changing his opinion on something. But it should never be something that is relegated to the level of "unimportant."
Here are two books I've found helpful. Both are well written and argued but both come to different conclusions. If you're in the "don't know" camp – these are worth your time. First, Greg Strawbidge's The Case for Covenantal Baptism includes contributions from Bryan Chappell and Richard Pratt. It was recommended to me some time ago and I commend it for a coherent and well argued case for infant baptism. For believers' baptism, I commend Tom Schreiner's book Believers' Baptism with contributions from Andreas Kostenberger and Mark Dever, amongst others.
Helpfully, both are about the same length and technical standard – so you will be comparing like with like. A good £20 invested (which will buy you both volumes).
And speaking of John and Paul – when are they getting back together….? The songs that would flow…..
An unpreached sermon part 2
If it is true that Jeremiah 17 encourages us to be realistic about the heart (our hearers and our own), it is also true that it contains a glorious picture of the regenerate heart which allows us to be optimistic as well. In a classic chiasm (I know, I know, but this one really is) Jeremiah sandwiches verses 7 and 8 with the bleak assessment we saw yesterday in 5-6 and 9-10. And what a glorious glimmer of hope. The regenerate heart is bountiful, beautiful even. It's an extended metaphor which describes the man who trusts in the Lord – drawing on language from Psalm 1 and elsewhere, The Lord, through Jeremiah, describes a tree which survives every onslaught and continues to bear fruit in every condition.
And we can thus be optimistic about the heart because one came to earth whose heart was exactly like this! Supremely, verses 7 and 8 describe the heart of Jesus. And we can be optimistic because his heart can be our heart as he forgives, restores and fills us with his transforming Spirit. So we can be optimistic about the hearts of those we preach to (yay!) and optimistic about our own hearts (double yay!). We do not have to live with that besetting sin all our lives. We can kick that habit and transform our speech. Or rather, the Spirit working in us bringing us from glory to glory can do it. This is the victory the Bible speaks about.
What an encouragement for preachers! Our work is not in vain because the mighty Spirit of the living God applies the preached word to our own hearts and those of our hearers and makes us more like our Saviour Christ and his perfect heart.
Preachers of the gospel of grace have every reason to be optimistic about the heart.
An unpreached sermon part 1
Sometimes circumstances dictate that you do all the prep and hard work but the sermon never sees the light of day. So it was for two messages that I was supposed to be preaching this week but which, for complicated reasons, have been consigned to the holding tray. One was on Jeremiah 17 and seeing as it was written for a ministers' conference, I thought I might share a little.
Jeremiah 17 is, of course, the holding place of one of Jeremiah's most pithy statements about the heart – Jer 17.9. And Jeremiah is the prophet, above all others, that speaks so directly about the heart. The heart, as you know, is the real you: the place where you think, doubt, fear, rejoice, believe, bear fruit etc etc. And Jeremiah 17 teaches us two fundamental truths about the heart which every preacher needs to bear in mind. He needs to bear them in mind not only for his own ministry (where we're on pretty safe ground), but also for our own hearts. The state of our own hearts is intimately and closely connected with the success of our ministry (this is not too strong – see 1 Tim 4.16).
Today, part 1, we need to see that to be a minister we need to be realistic about the state of hearts and our own heart. The first few verses paint a bleak and sobering picture of the heart. The problem of rebellion is:
- deep-seated. The sin of Judah is engraved with an iron tool, a point of flint. The idea is of permanence (though I have not used that word because the rebellious heart can be changed). Heart problems are deep-seated problems. They cannot wash off with a quick rinse. There are no easy fixes. [Interestingly, God has been dealing with my own heart recently and I can testify that it is, at times, a painful process – much like I imagine having a tattoo removed is.] We underestimate the rebellion of the heart at our own peril.
- comprehensive. (1) in its effect – it is a problem on the tablet of the heart and the horns of the altar. What is internal always becomes external. We may hide it for a while but, to paraphrase the Reformers, we become what we worship. But it is also comprehensive in its (2) reach. Even the children (v2) are affected. This is describing a covenant community – obviously – but the sign that heart problems are deep and real is when even the kids are joining in.
- devastating. Both corporately (v3-4) and individually (v5-6), such rebellion and deep seated heart problems can only lead to judgement. I love Calvin's translation of verse 4 – "I've put a fire in your face" – there are lots of forevers in the Bible but this is one of the most sobering: a fire is kindled that shall burn forever.
Verses 9-10 come into sharp focus. There we find the diagnostic double whammy – the heart is deceitful above all things AND I the Lord search the heart. It is the combination of these two together which spells deserved disaster.
Now, how does this help the preacher?
- First, it gives him realism about unregenerate hearts. It is important to say that Jeremiah is describing uncircumcised hearts. Too many preachers use verse 9 to describe regenerate hearts and that is simply not right (or at least things are more nuanced). Any conversion must be a supernatural work of God. We cannot change hearts. We haven't a hope in hell. Only God's word faithfully taught can do the job. So the preacher who is either prayerless or prepared-less (or both) is a disaster and to be pitied above all things.
- Second, it gives him realism about regenerate hearts. As we shall see tomorrow, there is great cause in Jeremiah 17 to be optimistic about the heart. But the heart is not totally transformed yet. It is a work in progress. And so, even though the descriptions above do not apply to regenerate hearts in totality, they contain some grain of truth. Here we see into the darkest recesses of both the hearts of those we minister to and our own hearts.
Where have you deluded yourself about the goodness of your heart when in fact it is black and needs transforming work?
Afterword on the covenants
Following on from my post on Monday, one of my Cornhill Scotland friends helpfully pointed out a different way of looking at Hebrews 8 and that it does not necessarily teach discontinuty:
- in Heb 8.8 God says he finds fault with the people of the old covenant, not the covenant itself.
- in Heb 8.13 it is possible that the term "obsolete" refers to the regulations of 9.1-10 not that the nature of the covenant has fundamentally changed.
This, of course, would lead you to a fundamental position of continuity not discontinuity.
Keeping my heart – in a journal
Do you keep a journal or a diary, I wonder? I try it from time to time but the plan often fizzles out for various reasons. However, recently, I've managed to be a lot more disciplined. Partly, I think, this is because we've been having a difficult family time which has given us many tears. How do you react in those kinds of times? Truth be told, I often feel a bit like Ezekiel who sat "overwhelmed for seven days". Keeping a journal has allowed me to articulate (in writing, if that's not an oxymoron) what is in my heart more clearly than if I was just sitting there like Ezekiel. I can write more honestly about myself than I can think about myself. I can read back and challenge what I've written – almost as though as I was chairing a PT preaching class. I can check the Scriptures I'm meditating on. For example, just thinking through 1 Peter 5.6-7, writing everything down forced me to develop and think through the relationship between humbling ourselves before a mighty God and casting all our cares on him. The link is important.
So, I don't think there's any rocket science involved. I'm certainly not keeping a journal for posterity or even for future generations, but it is helping me guard my heart before God – and for that alone I commend the practice.
The continuity of the covenants
A helpful lunchtime conversation recently with our resident Hebrews expert, Dr Jonathan Griffiths. I love PT lunchtimes: very eclectic! Anyway, this one was on the continuty of the covenants. How does the new relate to the old? Dr J suggested to me that you have to fundamentally decide whether your position is one of discontinuity, in which case the question you ask is "what does continues?" or continuity in which case you ask "what does not continue?" Either way, you've got to establish a theological starting point. Personally, it seems Hebrews 8 suggests strongly that the former is the right approach.
Have a good Friday!
How enemies conspire against the gospel
Read Ezra 4.7-16 this morning – the letter that Rehum and Shimshai send against the Israelites. It struck me again how enemies of the gospel twist the truth to suit their own ends:
- Rehum and Shimshai exaggerate those they represent (v10). It is highly unlikely that they do indeed speak for all the people whom they claim to speak for, but no matter, this just seems to enhance their objections.
- Rehum and Shimshai make leaps of logic to scare the king into submission. "If this city is built….the royal revenues will suffer" (v13). Quite a leap of argument. If this happens then that certainly will.
- Rehum and Shimshai choose the one topic that will get the King agitated. His coffers are depleted by the Greek wars fought by his predecessors. The threat of lost revenue strikes right at his heart.
- Rehum and Shimshai are selective with their history (v15). True, it is possible to look back into Jerusalem's history and see bleak moments (v16). But equally it is possible to look back to the time of Esther, for example, and see good history. That's how enemies work. They are always selective.
- Rehum and Shimshai exaggerate their claims. By verse 16 they are claiming that the whole of the Trans-Euphrates will be lost if Jerusalem is not stopped. Really? All of it?
Nothing changes. You can read exactly this kind of thing going on in Glasgow. Pray on for brothers and sisters at the Tron.
Preaching Acts or why Muslim men have beards but no moustaches
I had to prepare a talk and a sermon on Acts this last weekend. We're doing a little series called "reading the Bible for all its worth" where we help church members understand different genres of Scripture so that they can read the Bible well themselves. Last Sunday was Acts. You've got to decide when you preach it whether it is normative or descriptive. It seems the trend today is to choose the former. This post is about why that is the wrong approach.
- First of all, it's narrative. I think we can all agree on that. And the usual rules of narrative are that it is not, by virtue of being narrative, normative (that is not to say that it may be, more of that in a moment). We don't lay out fleeces for decision making. We don't grow our hair to make us strong. We don't die on a cross. Why should we jettison the rules of narrative for this one book of the Bible?
- Second, the book of Acts is not normatively consistent. For example, I was preaching on Acts 6.1-7 on Sunday. Good stuff. But the argument between various Jewish groups necessitates a change in the way the Apostles administer physical care. In chapter 4 money and food are brought to the apostles and, presumably, they distribute it. In Acts 6, this pattern changes. It has to. Which is normative? They can't both be.
- Third, normative applications often lead you down wrong paths. Most classically, the Ephesian disciples spoke in tongues so "all Christians must" – we hear this a lot around us. 1 Cor 12 proves that this is a falsehood, whatever you think of tongues today.
- Fourth, no one understands all of Acts normatively. Even the most ardent normative fan is selective. I don't know any church that has seven male deacons whose job is to wait on tables.
This was reinforced to me by one of our local missionaries who works amongst Muslim people. At a recent street event he was asked whether he was circumcised (!). Why? he replied. Because Jesus was circumcised and therefore you should be too, came the reply, This is the way a Muslim understands the Koran and the Hadith. Mohammed did it. So must I. Mr M had a beard. So must I. Mrs M told him she didn't like his moustaches. So he had a beard without a moustache. So must I. (Bet you never knew that!)
Instinctively we know that this is not the way to interpret narrative, so why do we apply it to Acts?
Now, before my friends who disagree get all hot under the collar let me qualify everything. Acts is, like other narrative an application of truth to situations. Therefore you need to read it in the light of the rest of Scripture – and especially, the apostles' teaching. Because of its post-cross timing, it is not surprising that many of the events of Acts do turn out to be normative, but they are so because they are timeless applications of new covenant truth, not because they are in Acts.
In other words, the very fact that many of the details of Acts do turn out to be normative has distracted us from thinking of the whole book properly as narrative and interpreting it in that light.