Take heart – God converts the famous too
I'm not one to gloat, but, oh man, we won the Ashes in Australia! A wonderful victory. Those England cricketers are worthy of admiration for achieving what no one has achieved for two decades. However, the Christian in me knows that they need Christ more than glory or fame. And yet, if I am brutally honest with my heart, there is a part of me that thinks that it is all just too difficult; some of them seem just too far away. Of course, I would never say that in public! But I need to be realistic that my theology (where I believe firmly that the arm of the Lord is not too short that it cannot save) is not always matched by my practice or feeling of the moment.
So, I've been encouraged to read today John Pollock's excellent little book, The Cambridge Seven, and in particular the section on the great missionary CT Studd. As you may know, CT was an England cricketer who famously played in that first Ashes test at the Oval (we lost, by the way). WG Grace described him as probably the best cricketer of the day.
CT is immortalised in the inscription found on the urn.
When Ivo goes back with the urn, the urn;
Studds, Steel, Read and Tylecote return, return;
The welkin will ring loud,
The great crowd will feel proud,
Seeing Barlow and Bates with the urn, the urn;
And the rest coming home with the urn.
CT was a Christian, but unlike his brothers not a fervent one. Yet during the off season of 1883-4 his life was changed through an encounter with DL Moody the famous US evangelist. CT eventually became a great worker for Christ in China, but not before he determined to take Christ to the entire English cricket team. He took every one of his colleagues to hear Moody and AJ Webbe, AG Steel and captain Ivo Bligh all gave themselves to the Lord.
Imagine. Andrew Strauss. KP. Graeme Swann.
"Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened that it cannot save or his ear dull that it cannot hear" (Isaiah 59.1)
Take heart, preacher and believe that God is able to do great and mighty things through the preaching of his word. Even amongst the famous.
It’s sin that leads to death
Reading the satirical press over the weekend I noticed this story which sounds like a puerile schoolboy joke but is absolutely true. It concerns an adult TV channel which broadcasts unencrypted during the day; basically, according to Ofcom the industry regulator, the channel features barely dressed women flouting for phone-sex business. Not very nice. Ofcom have just made a ruling against the channel because one of the models……wait for it…..was seen smoking a cigarette for 3 minutes. You can't make this kind of stuff up.
It's an incredible ruling – incredible in that reveals a lot about our society (just in case you think this is all made up, you can read the ruling here, about halfway down the page). We tend to think we live in an incredibly permissive society, but we don't. It's just that the things we are permissive about have changed. Society is not just more permissive, period. For sure, in some areas it is and, typically in areas of sinfulness. But there are plenty of other areas where we are more restrictive. You can't smoke on a sex channel.
Gloriously, Scripture presents a different pattern. Alongside strong warnings about sin there is glorious grace for those who are washed clean by Christ. As Paul writes:
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Genesis 1, definite articles and hard work
I'm preaching a four week series on Genesis 1 at the moment. Stirring stuff. Today in my prep I've been looking at the climax of creation on Day Six and how the text has some clues that draw us to the conclusion that this is what it is all working towards. Most noticeably, of course, the description changes from "good" to "very good."
But I also noticed today that the descriptions of the days change as well. All along the creation path there are no definite articles in the days. Days One through Five are all introduced as "there was evening and there was morning, first day" or "a first day." When you get to Day Six there is a definite article introduced to break the pattern. "there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day." There, in the text, is a clue that there is something special or climatic about this final day of creating.
I'm not a Hebrew scholar and I'm prepared to be corrected. But why do no English translations reflect this change (bar one, the New American Standard Update translates more literally)? I don't think the difference is inconsequential. I wonder if sometimes familiar words (this is how the KJV translated it) or even theology can get in the way of translation?
On occasion you see this elsewhere. For example, few translations which claim to be in the vernacular bother translating "hallowed" in the Lord's Prayer though this is a bizarre phrase that is pure jargon to the uneducated (for the record, only the HCSB amongst modern 'essentially literal' translations make a change in Matthew 6.9 – although less literal translations all do, e.g. The Message, Living Bible, NLT, CEV, NCV etc).
All of which reinforces what we believe and teach and I have found to be true again and again. There is no substitute for sitting down and working hard at the text. No short cuts.
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Goodbye Major Dick
I was genuinely saddened to read in the paper last night the obituary of Major Dick Winters of Band of Brothers fame (see also BBC report here). Almost unknown outside his regiment, the world became aware of him when the late Stephen Ambrose wrote his excellent account of Easy Company, 2nd Btn, 506 PIR during the Second World War (later made into a gritty TV mini-series starring Damian Lewis, BTW the box set has excellent interview material with Winters).
I've no idea whether he was a Christian or not. However, some years ago a fellow pastor told me that I ought to read military history and military biographies for these most closely resemble church life – we are, after all, in a battle. I think he was right. In God's common grace, Dick Winters was a remarkable leader. His men looked up to him with great respect – they testify still that they would follow him anywhere. He was not aloof, but he kept a distance at times. He was humble but brave, courageous not reckless.
Most obituaries report his famous quote when asked if he was a hero in the war. "No", he replied, "but I served in a company of heroes." That should be the testimony of every 'successful' pastor.
He is one of the last of that generation. I don't see the same mix of qualities in leaders today, which is to our loss. But we, as Christian, leaders, can still learn much from such men.
(Also interesting are Winter's war memoirs which give more detail of the man and leader – see here)
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If you're a techie who's into ebooks (for Amazon kindle, ipad, or just to read on your laptop or PC) you may not realise that many of John Piper's titles are available as free pdf files. That can be a great way of getting resources. In fact, I've been thinking with another minister whether a great way to resource overseas pastors in developing countries might not just be to buy them a kindle and load it up with these and other free resources?
It's worth checking out the Desiring God website for these – in particular, the superb Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood is available for free (not sure why as it's a Crossway book edited by Wayne Grudem). Get it while you can!
Guarding your heart
I've been much convicted over the last six months that the cause of preaching is linked closely to the state of the preachers' heart. So, I've been seeking out some things to read to help me think about my heart, and here is a surprising one. It's Thomas a Kempis' Of the Imitation of Christ. It's not a particularly Protestant books (though it has some clear Protestant ideas in it). But it also contains (amongst everything else) some devotional nuggets. Here is what I read today:
That the lovers of the cross of Jesus are few
Jesus hath now many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross. He hath many desirous of consolation but few of tribulation. He findeth many companions at his table, but few of his abstinence. All desire to rejoice with him, few are willing to endure anything for him. Many follow Jesus unto the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many reverence his miracles, few follow the ignominy of the cross. Many love Jesus so long as no adversities befall them. Many praise and bless him so long as they receive any consolation from him. But if Jesus hide himself and leave them but a little while they fall either into complaining or into too much dejection of mind.
But they who love Jesus for his own sake, and not for some special comfort which they receive, bless him in all tribulation and anguish of heart as well as in the state of highest comfort. Yea, although he should never be willing to give them comfort, they notwithstanding would praise him ever and wish to be always giving thanks.
What a great desire for preachers! To love Jesus for his own sake.
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Confess your sins…and get writing
I am struggling a bit with this Scripture memorisation. Robin and I tested each other in the office yesterday and he was pretty much word perfect whereas I stumbled over my words. Moreover, I now realise that Week 1 was the easy bit of Philippians to remember (1:1-5). This week I've got Philippians 1:7-11 and it's more complex. So, like one of Wenger's double substitutions, I am trying two new strategies at the same time:
- I am going to write out the verses in my journal, not just read them through. I hope that this will keep my mind focused on them and help me to think about them more (after all, memorisation is not just about remembering for remembering's sake)
- I've admitted defeat with the ESV. Instead I'm headed for my favourite translation, the HCSB. Robin helpfully pointed out that he won't now know if I've got it right or not. Precisely! Seriously, I hope that a slightly more readable version might make the memorisation more straightforward. We'll see.
BTW, it's a great prayer that Paul prays and I'm also going to use this week to pray for friends in ministry, knowing that I need this prayer – I'm sure they do too.
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The Game Plan
One of the consistently best evangelical publications we get here in the PT office has to be Modern Reformation (hopefully we'll have a sub offer in this year's resource guide published in June). In 2011, the publication is focusing on what we sometimes call The Great Commission, but they're calling The Great Announcement. Here's a helpful quote from Editor-in-Chief Michael Horton:
It's not enough to get the gospel right; we have to get it out. But what is this famous mandate of our Lord? It has become common these days for churches to draw up mission statements and strategic plans. What often gets lost in the shuffle, however, are the elements that Jesus gave us in the Great Commission itself: proclaiming the gospel, baptizing, and teaching everything he commanded. Like the gospel itself, this mission (and strategy) is often taken for granted. The Great Commission functions more like a slogan than an actual game plan. How do you make disciples? How do you grow churches? More often than not, the answers Christian leaders give today bear little resemblance to the Word and Sacrament ministry that Jesus actually ordained for the creation, sustenance and expansion of his kingdom.
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Well, it's a week on in my quest to memorise Scripture. Another member of PT staff is joining me too. It's been OK this week – I've got the first few verses firmly in my head, though quite what will happen when I get further in, I don't know. I am cursed (or blessed, depending on your point of view) with the ability to remember endless useless trivia, but retain very little of any importance. I can tell you that France are the reigning Olympic Cricket champions, but that's not really much help. Unlike the dear saint who often sits behind me in church and can recite great swathes of Scripture and Calvin quotes. Now, that's the sort of memory I would like to get.
Here, BTW, is why I am having a go at this project. This is from some time ago now, but I remember being struck when I first read it and it's the reason behind me signing up for the memorisation programme. Incidentally, over the next four weeks I'm preaching four sermons on Genesis 1 at church and I'm going to encourage the church to try to memorise that first Bible chapter – for the same reasons. This is written by John Piper:
First a few testimonies: I have it third hand, that Dr. Howard Hendricks of Dallas Seminary once made the statement (and I paraphrase) that if it were his decision, every student graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary would be required to learn one thousand verses word perfect before they graduated.
Dallas Willard, professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, wrote, “Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what it needs. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get in your mouth? Memorization” (“Spiritual Formation in Christ for the Whole Life and Whole Person” in Vocatio, Vol. 12, no. 2, Spring, 2001, p. 7).
Chuck Swindoll wrote, “I know of no other single practice in the Christian life more rewarding, practically speaking, than memorizing Scripture. . . . No other single exercise pays greater spiritual dividends! Your prayer life will be strengthened. Your witnessing will be sharper and much more effective. Your attitudes and outlook will begin to change. Your mind will become alert and observant. Your confidence and assurance will be enhanced. Your faith will be solidified” (Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], p. 61).
One of the reasons Martin Luther came to his great discovery in the Bible of justification by faith alone was that in his early years in the Augustinian monastery he was influenced to love Scripture by Johann Staupitz. Luther devoured the Bible in a day when people earned doctorates in theology without even reading the Bible. Luther said that his fellow professor, Andreas Karlstadt, did not even own a Bible when he earned his doctor of theology degree, nor did he until many years later (Richard Bucher, "Martin Luther's Love for the Bible"). Luther knew so much of the Bible from memory that when the Lord opened his eyes to see the truth of justification in Romans 1:17, he said, “Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory,” in order to confirm what he had found.
So here are a few reasons why so many have viewed Scripture memorization as so essential to the Christian life.
1. Conformity to Christ
Paul wrote that “we all, . . . beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18)) If we would be changed into Christ likeness we must steadily see him. This happens in the word. “The Lordrevealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:21). Bible memorization has the effect of making our gaze on Jesus steadier and clearer.
2. Daily Triumph over Sin
“How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. . . . I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9, 11). Paul said that we must “by the Spirit . . . put to death the [sinful] deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13). The one piece of armor used to kill is the “sword of the Spirit” which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17). As sin lures the body into sinful action, we call to mind a Christ-revealing word of Scripture and slay the temptation with the superior worth and beauty of Christ over what sin offers.
3. Daily Triumph over Satan
When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness he recited Scripture from memory and put Satan to flight (Matthew 4:1-11).
4. Comfort and Counsel for People You Love
The times when people need you to give them comfort and counsel do not always coincide with the times you have your Bible handy. Not only that, the very word of God spoken spontaneously from your heart has unusual power. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” That is a beautiful way of saying, When the heart full of God’s love can draw on the mind full of God’s word, timely blessings flow from the mouth.
5. Communicating the Gospel to Unbelievers
Opportunities to share the gospel come when we do not have the Bible in hand. Actual verses of the Bible have their own penetrating power. And when they come from our heart, as well as from the Book, the witness is given that they are precious enough to learn. We should all be able to sum up the gospel under four main headings (1) God’s holiness/law/glory; 2) man’s sin/rebellion/disobedience; 3) Christ’s death for sinners; 4) the free gift of life by faith. Learn a verse or two relating to each of these, and be ready in season and out of season to share them.
6. Communion with God in the Enjoyment of His Person and Ways
The way we commune with (that is, fellowship with) God is by meditating on his attributes and expressing to him our thanks and admiration and love, and seeking his help to live a life that reflects the value of these attributes. Therefore, storing texts in our minds about God helps us relate to him as he really is. For example, imagine being able to call this to mind through the day:
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:8-14)
I used the word “enjoyment” intentionally when I said, “communion with God in the enjoyment of his person and ways.” Most of us are emotionally crippled—all of us, really. We do not experience God in the fullness of our emotional potential. How will that change? One way is to memorize the emotional expressions of the Bible and speak them to the Lord and to each other until they become part of who we are. For example, in Psalm 103:1, we say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” That is not a natural expression for many people. But if we memorize this and other emotional expressions from the Bible, and say them often, asking the Lord to make the emotion real in our hearts, we can actually grow into that emotion and expression. It will become part of who we are. We will be less emotionally crippled and more able to render proper praise and thanks to God.
There are other reasons for memorizing Scripture. I hope you find them in the actual practice.
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Happy Christmas Eve. In North Africa.
Tomorrow some of the oldest churches in the world (together with some of the newest) will be celebrating Christmas Day – January 7th. I'm thinking of having a day off to celebrate.
More seriously, much of North African Christianity (though small in places) will be celebrating tomorrow. In previous years there have been disturbances, bomb threats and explosions. Let's pray that this really is a peaceful Christmas for our brethren.
I'm writing some church history at the moment, and I've realised how many of the church greats come from that swathe of land we now call Arab. Augustine in particular was Bishop of Hippo (present day Annaba in Algeria – see picture). I wonder how many Christians are there today? Not many, I guess. We have lots to thank God for that came from North Africa, now we should be praying that the gospel goes in again with great power.
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