A Pastor’s Reflections: Casualties of War
There are certainly many stressful vocations in the world. I remember hearing about a show that featured the most dangerous jobs in the world, which included Naval aviators, because of night carrier landings, and Alaskan fishermen, because of the harsh and deadly conditions where they work on the open sea, as two of the deadliest professions. I don’t think, however, that many people realize how stressful the pastorate can be. True, perhaps the pastorate isn’t dangerous, but I think it ranks up there for the level of stress that pastors suffer.
A recent journal article showcased a number of different reputable studies that researched the attrition rates among pastors, that is, how long a pastor survives in the ministry. The article reveals the following:
• 85% of seminary graduates leave the ministry within five years and 90% of pastors do not remain in ministry until retirement.
• In one southern state pastor attrition was as high as 90% among those who have served 20 years or more.
• In another study, evidence showed that 50% of ministers leave the pastorate within the first five years and never return to church, ever.
Other studies cited in this essay revealed other challenges for pastors:
• One study revealed that within the first 10 years, about half of the churches surveyed fired their ministers, while another 15% fired them during the last decade of their pastorates.
• Among surveyed Southern Baptist pastors, 23% of them were fired or forced to resign by small factions within the church. And 62% of surveyed churches fired their previous minister.
I doubt that few vocations have such high attrition rates, and the reality behind these statistics and studies shows that the pastorate is stressful. But as I read this article and reflected upon my own personal experience, I have personally seen these statistics in real life.
I pulled out a notecard and began tallying the different ministers that I personally knew who had left the pastorate for various reasons since I was ordained some 15 years ago, which include:
• 2 divorced their wives and resigned
• 1 resigned because of marital problems
• 1 left because of medical challenges with his family
• 3 were defrocked because of moral failings, one because of sexual misconduct and the other two because of problems with deception
• 1 was defrocked because of heterodoxy
• 1 quit because of the absence of a sense of a call to the pastorate
• 1 demitted the office because his church imploded beneath him.
So, all told, I have personally seen 10 pastors leave ordained ministry. Keep in mind how many years it takes to get into the pastorate: 4 years of undergraduate and 3-4 years of seminary education, which is then often followed by a yearlong internship. A person can spend nearly a decade preparing for the ministry only later to be disqualified or forced to resign for one reason or another. But this isn’t everything. In addition to those who resigned, I also know of others who were fired or forced to resign:
• 2 had their churches implode beneath them and had to seek other churches.
• 1 had a moral failing among his children which forced him to resign
• 1 had a falling-out with his church and had to seek another call
Again, in my relatively short ministry, I have personally known of four of my colleagues who have had significant challenges in their pastorates. The challenges were so severe, it either destroyed their churches, or they were forced to resign.
So, why on earth would anyone want to pursue the pastorate given these casualties of war? Simply stated, there’s a fire in your belly and a sense that you just have to pursue the call. A wise colleague of mine once said to a prospective seminary student who was thinking about pursuing ordained ministry, “If you can imagine yourself doing anything else as a vocation, then don’t go into the ministry. If you believe, however, that being a pastor is the only thing you can see yourself doing, then pursue it.” His point was, and is, the pastorate is too challenging and will very quickly wash out anyone who is not genuinely called.
Pray, therefore, for your pastor. Recognize that his job is very challenging and that there are pitfalls all around. There are literally dozens of angles at which he might fall and only one by which he will stand in his ministry. If you’re an accountant, for example, no one cares what you think about theological doctrines or whether your children behave properly, but such things can spell the end of a pastor’s ministry. Pray for your pastor’s health, well-being, theological soundness, fidelity to his wife, his love for his children, but most of all, for his fidelity to Christ. Pray that Christ would sustain your pastor through thick-and-thin. And if you ever meet a pastor who has faithfully served for thirty, forty, or fifty years, go up, shake his hand, give him a hug, look him in the eye, and tell him, “Thank you for your faithful service!”
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Office Hours continues the series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Death," by talking with Dr. Hywel R. Jones, Professor of Practical Theology, about the necessity of sanctification in the Christian life.
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A Pastor’s Reflections: Hospital Visits
Can I be honest? I don’t like going to the hospital, whether as a patient or as a visitor. There are a host of reasons for this, but perhaps one memory I have illustrates the point. I remember going on a hospital visit with a colleague to visit a member of the church only to find out after we entered the room that he was suffering from a highly contagious skin rash. Wonderful. Oh the joy. I stuck my hands in my pocket and did not remove them for prayer. I didn’t want the creeping crud. My colleague and I then walked very briskly to the nearest restroom and started vigorously washing our hands up to our elbows. I then prayed that I wouldn’t catch the infection. Praise God, I didn’t catch it. But this is just one reason why I don’t like to go to the hospital.
But as a pastor, you don’t have a choice about making hospital visits. Whatever hang-ups or issues you might have, they just don’t matter. If a member of your congregation winds up in the hospital, you need to go, period. There is, however, an art to making a good hospital visit. You have to realize that everyone is different—they may, or may not, want you to visit. Many people end up looking and feeling their worst when they’re in the hospital and so they don’t want someone dropping in. Also, if you’ve never been a patient, you won’t know that a hospital is the last place in the world you go to get rest. People constantly shuffle in and out of the room, prodding, poking, asking questions, and taking blood samples. So someone might be too tired to receive yet another visitor.
That being said, here are a few simple tips:
(1) Call ahead – make a phone call and tell the person that you’d like to visit them. This will give them (or family) the opportunity to tell you whether they want you to visit.
(2) Keep your visit short – I used to stay no more than ten minutes. Say a few words, ask how they are doing, and then offer a brief prayer. Tell the person that this is what you’ll do so that if they want you to stay longer, they can tell you.
(3) Put on a good poker face – I promise you will likely see, smell, and hear some strange and even disgusting things if you go on enough hospital visits. Whatever you do, don’t react. Keep a warm and sunny smile on your face regardless of what you see, smell, or hear.
(4) Don’t conduct church business – you may think that a hospital visit is a good time to talk to somebody about their recent failures to attend worship, but it’s not. Tend to the person’s needs, pray for them, and once they are better, then approach them about their failings. Follow this rule unless, of course, there are pressing matters and time is of the essence, such as if a person is on his deathbed and needs to deal with un-confessed sin.
(5) Bring your Bible – I promise you that if you make enough hospital visits you will encounter situations that will leave you speechless. I remember looking at someone who barely looked human because she had been so battered and bruised in a car accident. In such circumstances simply reading Scripture can be vital and beneficial. Make sure you identify adequate passages of Scripture for various circumstances ahead of time so you don’t stand there flipping around desperately looking for something.
(6) Be prepared to make a follow-up visit, whether at the hospital or at home.
These are some pointers on making a hospital visit. But whatever you do, don’t ignore one of your congregants if they do go to the hospital. I have seen other ministers fail to make a visit (or even the effort) and pay for it dearly. One of the quickest ways you can convey indifference is fail to make a hospital visit. And remember, there is no such thing as minor surgery. Minor surgery is what happens when other people have an operation. When you have “minor surgery,” it’s a pretty big deal. So don’t assume because something is “minor,” that it doesn’t warrant your attention.
A Pastor’s Reflections: American Flags
I believe I am a patriotic American citizen. I pay my taxes, love my country, and my family has paid a costly price to preserve the freedom we all enjoy. I have a posthumous Bronze Star with a Combat “V” and a Purple Heart that hang in my home—a small memorial to my namesake, a family member who was killed in action. That being said, a few members of my congregation over the years noticed a peculiar habit of mine. Not many in the church noticed this, but long before our worship service started, I walked up on stage (we met in a Middle School auditorium), and I moved the American flag behind the curtains out of sight. Once the service was over and we were cleaning up, I moved the American flag back into its prominent place. Over the years I had a few people ask me why I hid the flag.
I certainly didn’t hide the flag because I was unpatriotic or ashamed of my country. Rather, I didn’t want the congregation to be confused. Our church, though it met in the United States of American, wasn’t an American church. Every church of Jesus Christ belongs to him, it is his body. Hence, no one country or people group can lay claim to his people. Far too many American Christians forget this. They have American flags in their sanctuaries, they celebrate American holidays, such as Independence Day, with special worship services, or they even have a military honor guard present on the Sunday before Veterans Day. Yet, if we were to enter into the embassy of another country, we would never find the ceremonies, flags, or trappings of its host nation. Walk into a Mexican embassy and you will find all of the symbols and trappings of Mexico. The same should apply to churches.
Churches are embassies, if you will, of the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel. They are not the property of any one country. Even the former wall of division between Jew and Gentile has been torn down by Christ through his satisfaction and obedience. The only symbols that should be present are those that belong to Christ—word, sacrament, and prayer. I used to hide the American flag, therefore, so that my congregation knew that as a congregation we belong to Christ and no one else.
I’m sure that the idea of removing the American flag from the sanctuary might ruffle a few feathers. But think of this from another perspective. What if you were visiting a legitimate church in another country, say Russia. How would you feel to see the Russian flag unfurled in the sanctuary? How would you feel if the congregation, in celebration of a national Russian holiday, began to sing their national anthem? Would you feel out of place? As a red-blooded American, might you even feel offended? No Christian should ever feel out of place in Christ’s church. Rather than be greeted by national flags and anthems, Christians should encounter psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to our triune God, his word, and the emblems of his gospel, water, wine, and bread.
Be cautious, therefore, about what things appear in your sanctuary. Don’t be too quick to put that American flag in the sanctuary. And if you have one, be kind, gentle, and patient when you remove it. Teach your congregation why it should not appear in the sanctuary, don’t just go in an tear it down. In the end, remember that the sanctuary is ultimately Christ’s embassy of peace, not that of any other country.
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A Pastor’s Reflections: Burn’em
We live during the age of the theological celebrity. In previous generations there were undoubtedly popular preachers and theologians but things were a bit different. A theologian like Martin Luther was tied to a church not to a para-church organization, he wrote books, but they were not usually available for mass distribution like today’s trade paperbacks or internet posts, and he preached sermons but you had to be present in Wittenberg to hear them. Nowadays a celebrity preacher likely has a blog, a personal para-church ministry, website, published books, and his sermons hit the web within minutes after being preached. All of this creates a sense of urgency among newly minted minsters—they feel a sense of being left behind. As soon as they get into a church they want to start writing books, recording their sermons, writing their blog posts full of wisdom and insight, and perhaps even fire-up a para-church ministry with a matching website. Is all of this a good idea?
From one vantage point I can understand the sense of urgency. I can remember feeling like I was “behind” because I entered ordained ministry by the time I was 28, one year after Calvin had already published his first edition of the Institutes. I mean, you spend four years in undergrad, three to four years in seminary, followed by three years of graduate school, so the thought is, “I want to get off the bench and into the game!” But the more I have reflected upon what I know now, fifteen years later, and what I knew then, I’m glad that I didn’t get overly exposed too early. What do I mean?
I remember some people at my church were digging around in our storage container and stumbled upon the audiotapes for my first sermon series. They immediately bounced over to me and asked, “Do you want us to convert these to MP3s so we can post them on the website?” I responded, “What? Are you nuts? Those sermons were my very first ones—burn’em.” In other words, over the years I have been able to look back upon earlier work and I wince when I look back at it. As a minister matures, grows, and learns more, hopefully his sermons get better with time and practice. I am glad that I took possession of those tapes and they are now in a landfill somewhere. Yes, the Lord can use our paltry offerings in ways far beyond what we can imagine, but that doesn’t mean that everything we say or write is ready for broad dissemination.
All of this is to say, don’t be too eager to fire up the recorders, post your sermons on line, write books, blog posts, and start a personal para-church ministry. Rather, take time to sit quietly, study, learn, and ply your craft. Tend to your sheep and ensure you spend time caring for them—that is the primary goal of your ministry. True ministry isn’t about celebrity and notoriety, writing books and blog-posts, but about ministering the means of grace, word and sacrament, and caring for hurt and needy sheep. I think far too many ministers chase after the celebrity train and their congregations suffer as a result. The Lord may decide to use you in mighty ways, far beyond the reach of your own congregation. If he does, praise God. But don’t forget that ministry is about your sheep, your congregation. Moreover, as a new minister you still have much to learn. So it will probably be a while before you should become a greater public figure.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Public Prayers
This may come as a surprise but one of my least favorite things to do as a pastor is offer public prayer. I have, I believe, good reasons for my dislike of public prayer. I do like to pray—it is a very personal thing for me where I can lay myself bare and express my fears, concerns, joys, doubts, and many other emotions. The whole dynamic changes, however, when someone else is listening in on the conversation. If you knew, for example, that the NSA was listening to your phone conversations, how would this change what you say? When I’m praying from the pulpit, I have a whole lot of people listening in to my prayer. Such a reality makes me second-guess myself as to what, specifically, I will pray.
Given that many extra ears tune in when I pray from the pulpit, I open myself to a totally different unrequested answer to prayer—criticism. Over the years from time to time I have poured out my heart in public prayer only to have someone approach me afterwards and criticize the content of my prayer. Maybe I forgot to mention something, or I prayed too long, or I didn’t use the right words, or people have even challenged my prayers on theological grounds. Someone once criticized me for being pro-Islamic because I prayed that the gospel would go forth among Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. So when I step into the pulpit, I fear being criticized when I am at my most vulnerable.
Regardless of whatever fears I might have, as a minister, you don’t have an option. You will regularly offer public prayers, whether from the pulpit, or at other church functions and occasions. So what should you do to be ready to pray in public? Well, believe it or not, unlike private prayer, you should prepare, train, and even practice to pray in public. Public prayer is an acquired skill. In private prayer, so long as you follow biblical norms, you can say and do what you want. But public prayer has different parameters because of its public and open nature. So how can you prepare for public prayer?
First, study the subject of prayer. Far too many people think that prayer, private or public, requires no study or preparation. Who needs to practice conversation? Isn’t prayer a conversation with God? Yes, prayer is akin to a conversation with God, but have you ever been to a party and been stuck in a corner with a horrible conversationalist? Good conversation is an acquired skill and art, both in delivery and reception. So study the prayers of Scripture—learn their structure, terms, rhythms, and flow. Just like a child learns how to speak by repeating his father’s words back to him, learn how to pray by repeating God’s word back to him. You will learn how to praise God, for example, when you follow the patterns of prayer and praise in the Psalms. Far too often our prayers can sound like a laundry list of requests rather than first losing ourselves in the praise of God in prayer.
Second, don’t be afraid to write out your prayers. For some unknown reason people think that scripted (or prepared) prayers are unspiritual or less vibrant than extemporaneous prayers. They’re not. You can, for example, pray the Lord’s Prayer, which is written, or scripted, yet it is the model prayer and hardly less spiritual than an extemporaneous one. On this note, get a copy of Hughes Oliphant Old’s Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers. It’s full of scriptural and written prayers that you can use in worship. Pick up a copy of the Book of Common Prayer or The Valley of Vision, which is a collection of puritan prayers. One way to learn how to pray well is to read the prayers of others. You can use these in the pulpit to great personal and congregational benefit. Can you pray extemporaneously? Of course! Yes. But you can also bring written prayers into the pulpit as well.
Third, in public prayers remember that as a minister, you are not praying for yourself but on behalf of your congregation. Remember, your congregation is praying with you through your prayer. Do not, therefore, use the first person pronoun. Do not say, “Please, Lord, help me to preach well.” You have just taken a corporate prayer and made it individual. You have disassociated the congregation from your prayer. You can instead pray, “Lord, help your servant preach well.” This is something that everyone in the church can pray. As the minister, you pray on behalf of the church, therefore, pray with their needs and voice in mind, not merely your own.
Over the years I have grown more comfortable with praying in public, but I still have a sense of discomfort for the above-stated reasons. This fear has given me good reason to pray that the Lord help me to set them aside. If you have similar concerns, take them to Christ in prayer so that he will assist you in your public prayers.
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A Pastor’s Reflections: Living the in the Shadow of Death
The sad and true reality is that we live in the valley of the shadow of death, and as a pastor, this is a pressing reality. While others in the church might be able to live somewhat detached from illness and death, the pastor typically has a much closer connection to it. I can recall, for example, that when I was a teenager, my pastor had to shepherd five different families through cancer and death over a two-year period. I was sad for these families, but given the size of the church, my contact with them was minimal. My pastor, on the other hand, made regular visits with these families, whether in their homes, in hospitals, or even on their death-beds as they prepared to meet Christ face-to-face.
Depending on the circumstances the pastor, therefore, can be hard-pressed to carry on his regular duties. Death does not make appointments—you can’t schedule a time to die (I’m not talking about suicide, of course). This means that the pastor is at the beck and call of Providence. Sometimes it might be difficult for him to prepare his sermons because he’s ministering to a dying congregant or preparing for a funeral and the ministry he must conduct after the burial. Other times ministers face the challenge of not knowing what to do when someone is gravely ill. I had someone in my congregation suffering and dying from cancer, but the precise moment of the person’s death was anyone’s guess. The doctors said it could be days, weeks, or even months away. What was I to do? Do I put my life on hold? Do I take my family on vacation or do I stay close to home?
Trying to decide between ministry and vacation might sound like a trite comparison, one where there is no real choice, but the truth of the matter is, it’s a real choice. When you’ve made plans before your congregant became ill, paid non-refundable deposits, are in desperate need of rest, and have relatives scheduled to be present and expecting you, that’s real life. In this particular case, my wife believed that this would be the last time she would be able to spend an extended period of time with her grandmother. Do I stay and send my wife and children? Do I go with them? Decisions, decisions, decisions. I had a few restless nights with this dilemma.
I decided that even though we live in the face of death, that we nonetheless have to live our lives—do the things that Christ calls us to do even in the face of uncertainty. I decided, consequently, to take my family on vacation only to receive word that my congregant died in my absence. I naturally immediately returned home with my wife and children and ministered to the family who had lost their loved-one. I wondered whether this turn of events was the proof that I had made the wrong decision. And in all honesty, I had to pray that the Lord help me not be frustrated with the turn of events. It may sound impious, but again, that’s the reality of the pastorate. Pastors struggle with life as much as anyone. While it’s certainly possible that I made the wrong decision and should have stayed and canceled our family vacation, I rested in the fact that as the pastor, I cannot be in every place at once. As useful as omnipresence might be, this is something reserved for God alone. It’s what theologians call an incommunicable attribute of God.
This means that as a pastor, you are human, and have human limitations. It would be one thing if you knew precisely when someone was going to die and then decided to do something else. But when you can only live life moment to moment in the face of the uncertainties of life and death, you can only do so much. You can make decisions but be prepared to roll with the punches, to be flexible. Like the proverbial horse between two bowls of oats, if you choose to do nothing, you’ll starve. Therefore, in the face of death, make decisions, live life, and don’t be held captive by uncertainty and indecision. Sometimes, you might choose to stay close to home to minister to someone who might die. Other times you might choose to travel because it seems like a reasonable course of action. Such is the nature of wisdom, which is much needed in the face of death. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly, and sometimes you don’t (Prov. 26:4-5). But do pray that when Providence does change your plans, that you have patience and love for those involved in your new plans, especially your congregation. Pray for your family that they will be willing to sacrifice for the sake of Christ’s sheep. And if you’re not the pastor, pray that the Lord would sustain him as he makes challenging decisions—pray that the Lord would give him wisdom, love, and a sacrificial heart.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Three Important Responses
I served as an ordained minister for about five years before I was married. Among the different things I told my wife, I gave her three important responses that she should put in her church-conversation arsenal. It seems inevitable, that people talk, share problems, and sadly, even gossip. As the pastor’s wife, I knew she would hear her fair share of unsolicited information. To that end, I told her to use these three responses:
• “Hmm . . . that’s interesting . . .”
• “I’m sorry, this conversation is making me uncomfortable.”
• “This is something you should discuss with my husband.”
There might be different variants or perhaps combinations of these phrases, but they prove useful in the following ways.
First, I knew people would approach my wife and share controversial ideas with her, whether they might be political, theological, or personal. People often look for allies, for others to agree with them. In some circumstances a definitive, Yes or No, may be required, but in others, a circumspective, “Hmm . . . that’s interesting,” is quite useful. It’s non-committal, recognizes that you’re listening and engaged, but doesn’t require you to give an opinion. As impassioned as someone might be about the latest ballot measure for the city council meeting, responding with, “Hmm . . . that’s interesting,” can keep you out of the fray, and more importantly, keep you out of the middle of unnecessary debate or argument.
Second, I knew people would approach my wife with gossip, or things that were of a very personal nature. In the case of gossip, regardless of who you are, you should gently remind people that such talk is sinful (e.g., 2 Cor. 12:20). But on the other hand, there might be situations where someone wants to tell you all about their latest visit to the doctor’s office in all of the gory details. You don’t want to be rude, but neither do you want to hear about the details of an upper GI exam. A simple and kind, “I’m sorry, this conversation is making me uncomfortable,” will usually suffice. It lets the other person know you don’t want to continue the conversation.
Third, I definitely knew that people would try to approach my wife with issues that should be addressed to the session or me. Sometimes people treat the pastor’s wife as a back door to the pastor or session, and some pastor’s wives probably feel like they should carry the message. I told my wife to let people know very quickly, “This is something you should discuss with my husband.” In other words, the pastor’s wife isn’t a minister and doesn’t sit on the session or consistory. She should not have to deal with such matters.
There might be other things that you can say, but my wife has told me that over the years she has found these three phrases to be helpful to her. Perhaps they might be helpful to you as well, whether you’re a pastor’s wife or just someone in need of a few conversational extrication tools.
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Refreshing the Reformed Pastor
“In the Reformed tradition we have embraced the ideal of the learned pastor,” and to be “a learned pastor … requires ongoing study,” writes Dr. David VanDrunen in his Ordained Servant article, “Sabbaticals for Pastors”. VanDrunen acknowledges, however, that “it can be very difficult for pastors to find adequate time engage in the kind of reading and study that enables them to fulfill [this] pastoral ideal” - which is why churches should consider sabbaticals for their pastors.
To be clear, “Sabbaticals are not vacations with an exalted name,” but are “periods in which a person interrupts his ordinary routine in order to engage in focused study and learning, for the purpose of gaining knowledge and skill that will make him better at his labor and will benefit the people for whom he works.” VanDrunen believes sabbaticals “can be a healthy and productive means for ministers to become better students of God’s Word and thus to become better pastors.” “By permitting a pastor time for focused study and learning, sabbaticals can benefit not only the pastor himself, but more importantly the congregation that he serves and the broader church.”
Among several ideas for how a pastor can use this time away from regular ministerial work, VanDrunen suggests that “a pastor might consider using his sabbatical to take a course at a seminary,” noting that “many Reformed seminaries offer one-week or two-week courses at certain times of the year. Rather than simply doing independent reading to catch up on a certain topic or to gain general knowledge about a book of Scripture, many pastors could benefit from classroom instruction and interaction with fellow students.”
Now in its second year, the Alumni Winter Refresher at Westminster Seminary California (WSC) offers alumni a great opportunity to be spiritually, mentally, and physically refreshed during the month of January. Every January, WSC offers several short, one-week elective courses in pastoral ministry, church history, evangelism, and historical theology that are FREE to audit for any WSC alumnus. Additionally, WSC’s Annual Conference is held every January (usually the same weekend as MLK Jr. Day), and this year’s theme is “Transforming Grace: Our Need for Holiness”. Finally, WSC’s Alumni Winter Refresher allows alumni time to reconnect with faculty and to enjoy great Southern California weather!
VanDrunen concludes his article by urging congregations and sessions “to work with their pastors to secure adequate time from him to grow as a learned minister of God’s Word. When used responsibly and wisely, regular pastoral sabbaticals can be a blessing for the pastor, his congregation, and the broader church.”
For more information about WSC’s Alumni Winter Refresher, contact Chris Sandoval at (888) 480-8484 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Pastor’s Reflections: First Lady?
One of the pressures that a new pastor quickly discovers is that there are a lot of unspoken expectations about how the pastor’s wife should conduct herself. In a word, many people think the pastor’s wife serves a role akin to the first lady, the president’s wife. The first lady usually has some sort of PR initiative (Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign or Michelle Obama’s healthy food initiative). Moreover, the first lady is expected to host events, make press appearances, speeches, and the like. On a similar track, many people in the church expect that the pastor’s wife should host and lead Bible studies, play the piano, take the lead for social functions, or teach children’s Sunday school, etc. As common as this might be, I have serious concerns and reservations about such expectations.
I spent a number of years as a bachelor while I was in the pastorate, which meant that I was able to prepare my wife-to-be for some of the ins-and-outs of the ministry before we were married. One of the things that I told her was, “You are not the first lady of the church. You will be another member of the congregation. Pray and consider where you might serve in the church, but follow Christ’s leading on this and not the pressures and expectations of people in the church.” I firmly believe this was and is sound counsel for at least two reasons.
First, when the church calls a pastor, they call the minister, not his wife. As common a practice as it might be to interview the pastor and his wife, I personally do not believe such a practice is valid. Yes, a search committee needs to get to know the pastor’s family, but that can be done over a meal or social gathering, not a formal interview. Moreover, the church is paying the pastor a salary, not his wife. They do not have the moral right to expect work from the pastor’s wife any more than they would any other member of the congregation.
Second, the pastor’s wife is supposed to help him first and foremost, not the church. When churches place undue pressure upon a pastor’s wife, things at home can begin to suffer. I think this type of pressure contributes to the PK phenomenon (PKs are “preacher’s kids,” and they have a reputation as being troubled, immature, and disobedient). The pastor and his wife are too busy to care for their own household and children, and as a result, the PKs suffer. It very well may be that the pastor’s wife will have little to no time to serve the church because she has to tend to her own household matters, work, or raising small children.
Now in the interest of fairness and balance, for those who are pastor’s wives, or who will play this role in the future, do be sensitive to these expectations, as unfair as they can be at times. Don’t simply ignore them, and do what you can to be an asset to your husband’s ministry to the church. I think that as a pastor’s wife a person can set an excellent example of what it means to be a good church member simply by attending church, morning and evening worship, not hiding out in the nursery, and participating, when possible, in the broader life of the church. The pastor’s wife, for example, does not have to lead a Bible study, but simply attend it. Such members are often in short supply. But in the end, follow the Lord’s leading on how and when you should serve the church—do not allow others to play the role of the Holy Spirit in trying to convict you to serve. Pray, discuss it with your husband, and serve the Lord wherever that may be.
Latest Office Hours! VanDrunen on the Bible and Law
Office Hours talks with Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, about a recent book he co-edited entitled, Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy and Legal Institutions.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t be a bottom feeder
In seminary I discovered a life-long friend and enemy—the footnote. Sometimes when I read a book I find the footnotes to be more interesting than the main text. Authors bury fascinating comments and research in the footnotes. I love footnotes because I can follow the “bread-crumb trail” back to the original sources that authors use to create their own books. I also hate footnotes because I inevitably discover ten new books that I haven’t read and know that I now have to read but don’t have the time or resources to do so.
But when I was in seminary I quickly discovered that a number of my friends ignored the footnotes. They were content to read the text and move on. I also found that these same friends also typically read more popular theological books. Now don’t get me wrong—popular theological books are helpful and have their place in one’s theological reading diet. It’s important to see how a good theologian can take complex truths and break them down in a simplified manner. But on the other hand, if you only read popular books or only read the main text and never dig into the footnotes, you’ll inevitably cut yourself off from a wealth of knowledge and information.
As important as it is to read books about the Reformation, for example, you’ll be impoverished if you never read books by the Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, Vermigli, Ursinus (the "Golden Bear"), and the like. This same pattern appears with the importance of knowing the original biblical languages—are you going to rely on others to tell you what the Bible says or will you read it for yourself?
In a word, don’t be a bottom feeder. Bird-dog the footnotes! Chase them down! Don’t rely exclusively on the work of others to familiarize you with the great theological works. Dive in, read, mark, learn, and encourage others to do the same. Start a book club where you read great theological classics, like Augustine’s Confessions or Luther’s Bondage of the Will. And if you’re a pastor, focus on reading deep. Rather than read the latest book by Tim Keller, peruse the footnotes and find out what Tim Keller is reading, pick it up, and read it!
Latest Office Hours! The Sanctification Crisis in the Reformation
Office Hours continues with the new series entitled, "New Life in the Shadow of Christ," by talking with Dr. J. V. Fesko, Professor of Systematic Theology and Historical Theology, about the sanctification crisis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Read and Re-read
In our present American culture we live in an unprecedented time where attention spans are likely the shortest they have ever been. In the digital age we are used to instantaneous results. If we want to know something we Google it and thousands of results immediately appear on our screens. We don’t even have to wait to get to a computer but can run searches on our mobile devices. Neil Postman in his Amusing Ourselves to Death has documented the deleterious effects that digital media has had upon our culture. He notes that in the nineteenth-century when Abraham Lincoln ran for office that the presidential debates lasted for hours on end, whereas in our own day, they last minutes and the media then strips the debate down to one or two sound bites. I suspect that when Lloyd Benson debated Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential debate few people remember much about the substance of their exchange. The one ringing sound bite, however, still lingers in the minds of many. When Quayle said that he had more political experience than John F. Kennedy, in terms of the amount of time served, when Kennedy became president, Benson responded to Quayle, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” This is the one statement that sticks—everything else has faded away. Instead of digging deep into books, people go to Wikipedia. As useful as the Internet can be, never before have we had access to so much information yet know so little.
Given these trends I think seminary students and ministers these days suffer from a short attention span and the inability to read long, detailed, carefully argued information. I am a digital immigrant, which means that the Internet was not around when I was a kid. To give you an idea, I used 8-track tapes and 45’s and even my dad’s reel-to-reel from time to time. But even then I still notice the negative effects of technology on my attention span. As with any problem, diagnosing and recognizing the issue is half the battle. If you know that digital media can have a negative effect on your attention span, then resist the temptation to turn on the computer, surf the internet, or watch a show. If you need to learn about something, fine, go to Wikipedia, find out what book you need, and then turn off the computer and get the book!
Also resist the urge for instantaneous gratification. The first time I read Geerhardus Vos’s The Pauline Eschatology I was bored to tears. I thought Vos was writing in Dinglish (Dutch + English = Dinglish). But I persevered and read through the whole book. I still wasn’t satisfied, however. So a few months later I picked up the book and read it again. I could tell I was benefiting from this because the first time I read the book I used a yellow highlighter and hardly marked anything. The second time I used blue, and I marked a number of more passages. But I still didn’t feel like I had figured out what Vos was saying, so a few months later I read the book for a third time. This time the lights came on and the Dinglish scales fell off my eyes! I could tell because I was painting entire pages with my pink highlighter. I couldn’t believe I had missed so much on the first two readings of the book.
Now, there is the real possibility that I am a dunce and it takes me a lot of elbow grease to understand something in comparison with others (yes, mom and dad, I now understand how they make movies). On the other hand, maybe I’m like most people and I have to fight the temptation for immediate gratification—I have to read, and re-read in order to grasp carefully argued and reasoned information. In other words, don’t be misled by our culture, which tells us that we can have everything immediately and with little to no effort. You can Google or Wiki something but it doesn’t mean you’ve actually learned anything. Read and re-read and don’t be afraid to work hard to learn. Read once, twice, three times if necessary. Outline the book. Take notes. In the end, you will reap the benefits, and more importantly, so will your congregation.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Bounce Couples
One of the things a pastor and his family should regularly do is exercise hospitality. Each year my wife and I would go through our church’s directory and make a rough plan that outlined when we would invite various families over to the house. But the reality of church life is, as the pastor, you need to show kindness and hospitality to everyone in the church. You don’t have the freedom to play favorites. If you invite only certain people over to your home, you’ll inevitably create an “in crowd” that will leave the rest of the church wondering why they’re second-class citizens.
But truth be told, it’s not easy inviting everyone over to your home, and I’m not just talking about numbers, i.e., the logistics of inviting large numbers of people. I’m talking about the various reasons why it’s not fun to have certain people over. For example, some people are obnoxious and only talk about themselves, or they constantly dominate the conversation. Others are so shy, getting them to talk is like trying to mine diamonds—you constantly have to ask questions to which you only get the smallest of one-word answers followed by awkward silence. Let’s face it, there are many reasons why it’s difficult to interact with some people in your congregation. So what are you to do?
My wife and identified the challenging people (this was something that we definitely kept to ourselves) and then invited a “bounce couple” or two in addition to the tough people. What’s a bounce couple? “Bounce couple,” is the term that I used when we needed to identify a couple that was mature, good with people, and were good conversationalists. I called them “bounce couples” (you can also have a “bounce person,” for the one who’s single) because you could bounce ideas, conversation, and people off of them. When we invited the shy person over, for example, the presence of another couple would create a livelier atmosphere, provide someone else to contribute to the conversation, and help draw the person in.
All of this is to say, you need to show hospitality to everyone in your church, but you can do so with the help of others. And you need not tell your bounce couple that they are serving the “bounce” role. Simply invite them over and enjoy the fellowship. Having a number of bounce couples on your “roster” can make showing hospitality a whole lot easier and enjoyable, and it takes a lot of the pressure off you and your family. You can even ask your bounce couple to bring a salad or desert! This principle also works for non-pastor types!
Latest Office Hours! The Experience Economy
Office Hours talks with James H. Gilmore, guest lecturer of a course offered at WSCAL entitled "Understanding Commerce, Culture, and Congregations," about the importance of cultural exegesis for pastors and their congregations.
To listen to this latest episode click here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Spiritual Bulimics and Anorexics
There are spiritual bulimics. Bulimia is an eating disorder where people will binge eat and then purge, to put it politely. I ran into a number of people like this who would regularly come to church, they would buy many theological books, and even profess to read and study the word. But regardless of how much they consumed, they seemed to purge it out as soon as the left the doors of the church. Their lives were a total mess—gross sin abounded and there were massive breaches of judgment.
There are spiritual anorexics. Anorexia is an eating disorder where a person stays away from food altogether. There were a number of people in the church who claimed that they were Christians, several of whom were on the membership roll, but who seldom darkened the door of the church. On a number of pastoral visits I would encourage them to attend church—I showed them various Scripture passages and explained the importance of the means of grace for their sanctification. Unsurprisingly, not only were these people frequently absent from church, but they were also inattentive to the word and prayer in their own private devotions. In one case, after many long months and repeated entreaties, the session placed one individual under church discipline for his or her failure to attend church—there were also other factors involved. People like this frustrated me because they would complain about having all sorts of spiritual problems. Well, yes, of course you will. If you don’t eat food then of course you’ll be weak.
In the church we all have to realize that coming to the table and eating (to extend the analogy) is not enough. You not only have to consume, but you also have to digest. The spiritual bulimic suffers likely suffers from insatiable hunger, but Christ tells us: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Chances are, if you’re constantly devouring theological “food,” but to no effect, then you’re probably an intellectual ideas junkie. You like the intellectual stimulation but you’re not genuinely interested in taking up your cross and following Christ. Like Paul’s description of the person who possesses all knowledge but has not love, he is like a noisy cymbal (1 Cor. 13:1-2). Growth in grace is not ultimately about the acquisition of knowledge but ultimately the pursuit of wisdom—of learning who Christ is and seeking greater conformity to his image.
Likewise, for the spiritual anorexic, if you find yourself fleeing from the “meal” that Christ offers in word and sacrament, could it be that you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness because you are already full? Have you already sat at the table of the world and taken your fill so that you have no hunger for righteousness?
In both cases, whether for the spiritual bulimic or anorexic, the only person who can move you past these sanctification disorders is Christ. Only he can give you the desire to pursue the wisdom that can only be found him (Col. 2:3). Only he can give you the desire to flee the table of the world and give you a hunger and thirst for righteousness that only word and sacrament can satiate.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Degrees Don’t Mean Much
One of the more discouraging aspects of the pastorate is the lack of respect that people show for their pastor’s education. When it’s all said and done, a well-trained pastor will spend four years in his undergraduate studies, three to four years in his seminary training, and perhaps one year in an internship, for a grand total of eight to nine years of education and practice before he steps into a pulpit full-time. That’s almost as long as it takes to become a medical doctor.
Now in all fairness, there are many people in the church who recognize the amount of training, study, and preparation that ministers must accomplish. But there are also those who care little to nothing about your training. It doesn’t matter that you’ve studied philosophy, theology, and that you’ve poured over the Greek and Hebrew text, compared it with the Septuagint, scanned the history of exegesis, and read hundreds of pages on one verse (John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, anyone? I see that hand!). To many people in the pew, if you say something they don’t like, they’ll simply disagree with you and often be unafraid publicly to tell you. A softer and gentler version of this occurs, for example, when you’re trying to teach the children in your church—they don’t know or likely understand how much training, degrees, and preparation it’s taken to bring you to stand before them and explain the Bible. So, there’s a sense in which degrees don’t mean much.
I’m definitely not saying that ministers should not train—I spent nearly a decade preparing for service in the church and don’t regret a minute of it. The point is, you cannot step into a church and expect people to bow down before the degrees that hang on your wall. Instead, here are a few observations about education, degrees, and serving the church.
First, your degree isn’t a terminus but a starting point—it’s your license to learn. It’s great that you’ve finished seminary, but you’re really just getting started. Never, ever, think that you’ve “arrived.” The more I have studied, the more I realize how little I know. This fact alone should keep you humble.
Second, you must pray for patience. When you preach and teach, as important as your study is, your knowledge is not what ultimately grabs people by their hearts and mind—only the Spirit of God can do this through the word. You merely prepare the meal—the Spirit enables people to consume and digest it. Think, for example, of Christ’s interaction with his own disciples. How often do we want to grab the disciples and box their ears because they just don’t get it? It seems like their spiritual dimwittedness would have driven anyone else batty. Think of Paul’s labors with the Galatians or Corinthians. Here is a man personally ordained and commissioned by Christ, yet it seems that Paul was never in want of disrespect or indifference.
Third, whatever you know, have learned, or will learn, is ultimately because of God’s grace. Therefore, you can’t take credit for it and take umbrage when someone doesn’t respect your office. You’re simply one beggar showing another beggar where he can find a meal. Don’t think too much of yourself. If Jesus, Paul, the apostles, and prophets suffered great disrespect, so can you.
Fourth, don’t be offended if people want to verify your teaching against the word of God. The Bereans did this to Paul (Acts 17:11)—they verified the things he was teaching. If your congregation isn’t verifying your preaching and teaching against the word, then they might be looking to you rather than Christ. I’ve always told my congregation and students, “Don’t believe it because I say it—verify it with the word and believe it because Christ says it.”
In the end, don’t stand on your education but rather your union with Christ and his word. Only he can give you the patience to love your sheep, no matter what they think of your education. And only he can give you the humility to esteem him and his church more than the degrees that may hang on your wall.
Latest Office Hours! The Definition of Sanctification
Office Hours kicks off with a new series entitled, "The Pilgrim Life: Conforming to Christ" by talking with Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, about the God who not only justifies, but also sanctifies.
You can find this latest episode here.
Bookstore back on-line!
WSC's bookstore is back on-line. This past summer we took the bookstore off-line because we made some changes so that our bookstore would be able better to serve our students and local community. Our bookstore's hours are now contiguous with our library's hours, open from 8.00am to 10.00pm at night! There are few bookstores, I believe, that can match those hours.
Additionally, the bookstore is back on-line with faculty titles available for purchase.
You can find the bookstore's pages on the WSC website here and a list of faculty books here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Sleeping in Church
In my time in the pastorate I only rebuked (gently, I believe) my congregation twice for sleeping. On two particular instances, one where we were administering the Lord’s Supper, there were an inordinate number of people dozing off. And especially in the case of the Lord’s Supper, I urged people not to take it if they had been sleeping. How can the sacrament be of benefit if you’ve slept through the preaching of the word?
There are a number of reasons why people sleep in church. Let’s set aside genuine excuses. Some people are on medication that makes them dreary—I’ve had really bad colds where my medication makes me feel like I’m in an astronaut’s helmet walking on the surface of the moon. I’ve felt downright loopy. So falling asleep in church might be excused. I also had a number of church members who were public safety personnel (fire or police). Some of them would come right off an all-night shift and arrive at church somewhat bleary-eyed, and understandably so. I always had (and do have) great respect for the public safety officer or medical personnel (works of necessity) who would still make an effort to come to church. The same can go for parents of young children. Sometimes small children can keep you up all night for various reasons, but I’ve seen parents drag themselves to church anyway. In these circumstances falling asleep in church is perfectly understandable, though undesirable.
There are those, however, who I saw sleeping in church because of a lack of what the Puritans used to call, “Sabbath preparation.” Some people look at Saturday night as a time to have fun, and understandably so. After a long workweek it’s nice to be able to rest and blow off some steam. But when fun rolls late into the night and then the wee hours of the morning, how might this impact your Sunday worship? If you can stay up late into the evening and early morning and still stay alert and awake during worship, then more power to you. Of course, I’m bypassing the important question of what you’re doing during those hours (i.e., are you filling your mind with garbage? That’s a subject for another post). But if you know that staying up late will impinge on your alertness in worship, then go to sleep!
If we truly understand what worship is, gathering in the presence of our holy triune God, and that the reading and preaching of the word, in conjunction with the sacraments, is God’s voice to his people, then we should certainly be alert and attentive. In the end, be diligent to make good preparation for Sunday. Get a good night’s rest.
Dr. Fesko’s Baptism book back in print!
Dr. Fesko's book on baptism, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism is back in print! The first printing of hardbacks dried up but the reprinted edition is now available in a modestly priced paperback edition. You can obtain a copy at our local campus bookstore (they might have a few hardbacks left) or by ordering one here or here. You can find a copy at our own bookstore here.
When not to take a call
Over the years I have watched numerous churches form search committees and seek to fill empty pulpits. The process can often be a long and drawn out one that can take up to two years or more. Hiring the church’s next pastor can be a crucial hurdle in the life of a congregation, one that can either spell the church’s continued ministry or its demise. This is one of the reasons why churches take their time to deliberate and find the right man for the job. For the ministerial candidate, on the other hand, the process can be excruciatingly long. A pastoral search committee can seemingly move at glacial speed as the months tick by on the calendar. So after a church’s pulpit search committee finally invites you out for an interview, has you preach, and they then call a congregational meeting to vote on your candidacy, it can seem like it’s all over and the call is in the bag.
Not so fast. It may seem counterintuitive, but there are times when you shouldn’t accept a call even if a church issues you one. When should you decline a call? Ultimately answering such a question calls for wisdom, as this is a circumstance that is not black and white. Nevertheless, here are two observations.
First, when a congregation issues a call, you should inquire into the percentage in favor of calling you. Some might think, “Why ask about this? A call is a call regardless of how many people are in favor of calling you, right?” Accepting a call isn’t like winning a baseball or football game. Yes, a win is a win no matter how ugly it might be, but a win becomes a thing of the past whereas a call is a future relationship that will either foster harmony in the service of Christ and his gospel or fester with animosity and hinder your ministry. Case in point, if 75% of the congregation voted in favor or your call, that means that for every four people in the church, one is opposed to your presence before you even set foot in the church building. In a congregation of 200, that means that 50 people don’t want you there. In the face of such a vote, you might not want to pursue the call. Generally speaking, I have heard other colleagues, wiser and older than me, say that a minister shouldn’t accept a call unless at least 90% of the church voted for you. You will never please everyone all the time, and you will always have critics, but seriously consider how strong the vote is when you weigh taking a call.
Second, churches are like people—they all have personalities. And the fit between a pastor and his church is like a marriage relationship. When you’re looking for a spouse you want to ensure you have a good personality fit. Yes, a person can love Christ, have a great character, and a terrific personality, but the two of you might not “click.” A church can bear all of the proper biblical marks (right preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline) but its personality can be an issue. Case in point, if you go into a church interview and observe that you like the church but that you want to change many things that you see, then seriously consider whether you should take the call. I’m not talking about reforming a church—taking a call knowing from the outset that you’ll have a fight on your hands because you’re striving to displace bad theology and worship. Rather, I’m talking about peripheral practices in a church: the choir, service times, programs, discipleship groups, music style, etc. If you go into a church thinking that you’re going to ideologically and practically remodel the whole thing, then maybe you shouldn’t take the call. Ask yourself whether you and the church have a good fit.
There are times when you shouldn’t take the call. Just because a church calls you doesn’t mean you should take it.
Preaching Christ with Application!
It seems that one of the perennial debates that swirls around Reformed circles is the question of how to preach the text of Scripture. Do you rely upon the "grammatical historical method" or the "redemptive historical method" (notice the scare quotes)? The way these two opinions are typically bandied about is: Do you believe in exegeting the text responsibly or arbitrarily forcing Christ upon it? Do you believe in preaching Christ or in preaching application? I think much of this debate forces false dichotomies upon people who genuinely want to know how rightly to interpret and preach Scripture.
First, pitting grammatical historical vs. redemptive historical is like trying to pit your heart against your lungs. Which one is more important? Pick! Choose! Uh, can I have both? You have to understand the grammar of the passage as well as its historical context, but you also have to situate the passage with regard to the rest of the Bible. Where, precisely, in the canon does the passage rest? Are we pre- or post-fall, before or after Christ's advent? Before or after the monarchy, Pentecost, etc.
Second, exegetes and preachers should want to preach Christ from every text, responsibly, not by foisting him upon it, but showing the church how Christ is organically connected to it. Edmund Clowney used to tell his students (so I'm told) to ask themeslves a simple question: "Can you preach your message at a Jewish synagogue without offense?" In other words, if you walk away from preaching a text and deliver a message that would have been positively received at a synagogue, then chances are that you have failed to preach Christ and deliver the offense of the gospel. Moreover, preaching Christ and the gospel from any text in Scripture is not merely a matter of the so-called "shingle sermon." What's a shingle sermon? It's when the preacher goes on for the entire sermon but knows that he has to mention Christ and the gospel so he tacks it on to the end of his sermon like a shingle. Christ's presence in the text, sermon, and hence preaching the gospel, should arise naturally not as an afterthought.
Third, all responsible preachers should follow the apostolic method and apply the text to his auditors, to the church. Yes, "application" (scare quotes again!) is a hotly debated subject. Not all application is created equal. To illustrate my point, consider preachers in the days of Johan Sebastian Bach. In the German churches of his day preachers were expected to be imminently practical and not dwell upon arcane doctrines. So what did they do? They would sometimes give practical tips, such as how to make your garden grow. Seriously--they gave gardening tips to be practical. Again, as with preaching Christ from every text, the preacher must seek to apply the text exegetically and responsibly. If you're preaching a text from Romans 4 where Paul discusses justification and you somehow end the sermon on the importance of good works, chances are you missed the point of the text. The application should be about believing in the gospel of Christ! On the other hand, if you are preaching from Ephesians 5:25-33, your application cannot merely be, “Contemplate with gratitude how sacrificially Christ has loved his church.” It must drive toward the specific direction with which Paul opens and closes his discussion: “Husbands love your wives…let each one of you love his wife as himself.” The text should drive the application, not the agendas, desires, or interests of the preacher or congregation. Sometimes the application will be to love your wife, worship God, give of your money to the poor, or believe in Jesus.
If you want to learn more about these things from someone who has given them very careful, prayerful, and theological thought, check out a number of resources by WSC's own Prof. Dennis Johnson.
Click here to find a series of lectures that Dr. Johnson gave on apostolic christocentric homiletics. Or for a more in-depth look at these issues, check out Dr. Johnson's book, Him We Proclaim.
Click here to find a trove of resources on preaching Christ from all of Scripture.
In the end, study the Scriptures and ask, How did the apostles connect Christ to the various Old Testament texts that they cite? How, for example, does Paul connect Christ to Psalm 8, a text clearly about the creation of man (1 Cor. 15:20-28)? Obtain good resources to study these subjects, such as Dr. Johnson's book and lectures. But whatever you do, don't rely on bumper-sticker debates about preaching.
Prof. Hart’s Book in the Wall Street Journal!
If you haven't yet heard, Visiting Professor of Church History at WSC, Dr. Darryl Hart, recently had his new book Calvinism: A History published earlier this summer by Yale University Press. For many years students have had to rely on John T. McNeill's The History and Character of Calvinism, but now with Hart's volume they have a freshly minted resource to study the history, development, and spread of the Reformed faith.
Interestingly, Hart's book was positively reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and appeared August 20, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition with the headline: The Eating Of Sausages. The review's author concludes his assesment of Hart's book with the following observation:
Where does Calvinism stand now? Mr. Hart, whose other writings tend toward pessimism and regret, sounds almost cheerful about Calvinism's global presence. "Reformed Protestantism has been a global faith since the 17th century," he writes, and it is equally so now. It thrives in South Korea; self-consciously Reformed churches in the U.S. aren't on life support as their "mainline" counterparts are; missionaries from Reformed denominations are spreading throughout Africa and Asia; and there are even modest signs of a Calvinist resurgence in Europe.
In the developed world, established churches have dwindled to the point of insignificance, and national loyalties (along with national borders) mean less and less. If Mr. Hart's view of Calvinism is right—that it has flourished best when freed from the encumbrances of the nation-state's power—its history is far from over.
For as much criticism as Hart receives for being unconcerned and having capitulated to the surrounding culture given his commitments to the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, this observation begs the question as to how accurate the criticisms have been. Maybe questions about cultural influence and transformation deserve broader discussion and input as well as bringing old ideas to the table for reconsideration? Nevertheless, it's worth noting that Hart's book on the history of the Reformed tradition has been featured in one of our American culture's leading secular publications--another counterfactual piece of evidence against the charge that Two Kingdoms advocates are culturually disengaged.
In the end, read the review in the WSJ, or better yet, pick up Hart's latest book!
Thick skin, thin skin
In the pastorate you have to master the seemingly impossible art of having, at the same time, thick and thin skin. How can you possibly pull off such a feat? And why would such a chameleon-like skill even be desirable?
First, why do you need thick skin? In a word, as pastor you will receive your fair share of criticism. The lion’s share of criticism should be placed into the “ignore this stuff” category. People often complain about the silliest things: the time of the worship service, how frequently the church holds activities, the types of illustrations you use in your sermons, the fact that you pick the same hymn too frequently, the color of your tie, or the kind of beverage you drink (for the record, I’ve personally had all of these complaints). I have to say with great glee, that I simply smile, note the complaint, and then move on. I let the words flow off my back like water off a duck. At the same time, I have also had complaints about very serious matters, though they have been grossly unwarranted. People have complained that the children’s Sunday School was run like a concentration camp (true story), I have had people yelling at me at the top of their lungs, and I have had people complaining sobbing with tears about how insensitive I’ve been because I failed to foster their unique relationships with each member of the trinity (true story). Again, I had to let these comments roll off my back. If you let every single comment weigh you down, then you’ll quickly end up very tired, burned out, and looking for a career change. I think the inability to have thick skin is one of the reasons why men leave the pastorate in droves. So, you definitely need thick skin.
Second, why do you need thin skin? If you only have thick skin, then you will quickly become impervious to all of the criticism and complaints and think you’re bulletproof. In the midst of the noisy din of complaints there are frequently critical words that require serious reflection, consumption, and engagement. If you ignore them, you do so at your own peril and perhaps even to the detriment of the church. And sometimes, complaints come from people for whom you might have the least amount of respect. In other words, sometimes crazy people make accurate observations. I can remember in Sunday School, in front of everyone, a person that many in the church ignored told me, “You are formulating an answer in your mind before you have heard the entire question. Please listen to the whole question before you run off to answer it!” This was a thin-skin moment—one where I needed to heed the complaint. The person was absolutely right and I acknowledged this. I quieted my mind and listened to the person’s question.
All of this is to say, in the pastorate you need wisdom to know when to ignore criticism and when to take it to heart. This is one of the reasons why as the pastor, or any person for that matter, you need to be in constant prayer to ask Christ to give you boldness and confidence to ignore inane or baseless complaints on the one hand, and to have humility to accept valid criticism with grace and charity on the other. Pray therefore, that Christ would give you thick and thin skin!
Latest Office Hours with Charles Telfer
Office Hours talks with Rev. Charles Telfer, Assistant Professor of Biblical Languages at Westminster Seminary California, about his journey to a Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
You can find this latest episode here!
Latest Office Hours with Kelly Kapic
Office Hours talks with Dr. Kelly Kapic, Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College, about John Owen and Christian spirituality.
You can find this latest episode here!
Don’t Go Alone
Among the regular duties that a pastor must carry out is regular in-home visits with members of the congregation. In the first year of my ministry I can remember an elder churchman in the presbytery telling me, “Always take one of your ruling elders with you when you make home visits. There are too many benefits to ignore and too many liabilities when you go alone.” Over the years I have thought back to that counsel and have noted how right this colleague was.
First, what are the benefits to taking a ruling elder with you on home visits? There are many:
• You practically teach the church that the pastor and elders form the church’s leadership, not just the pastor alone.
• You have a second set of ears and eyes on the home and conversation.
• You have accountability present with you so that no one can claim you said or did anything inappropriate.
• You practically demonstrate that the elders of the church love the congregation as much as the pastor.
• You have someone present who might be able to offer helpful life-advice, depending on the age of the elder it could be advice about career, child-rearing, marriage, etc.
• It’s a personal encouragement to you, the pastor, to know that you’re not shepherding the sheep alone.
• You have a second person with first-hand knowledge about how to pray for a family in need.
• The elders of the church get to know the members of the church in a far more intimate manner.
I suspect that there are other benefits that I could list, but these certainly touch upon the key points.
The liabilities to going alone, on the other hand, can be significant. When you visit a home alone, you can have the inverse of the benefits:
• You practically and incorrectly teach that the pastor is the sole leader of the church.
• You don’t have a second set of eyes and ears on a home and conversation.
• You have no accountability present.
• You practically demonstrate and possibly convey that the elders don’t love the congregation as much as the pastor.
• You only have your own counsel to offer.
• It can be a personal discouragement to you as the pastor knowing that your elders don’t share in the labor of home visits.
• You likely don’t have a second person with first hand knowledge of a situation for prayer.
• The elders of the church lose out on an opportunity to get to know the congregation.
There will certainly be times when your ruling elders won’t be able to come with you on home visits. But whenever possible, take your elders with you. Don’t go alone!
I Know How You Feel (Maybe you Don’t)
In counseling people in the midst of difficulties or tragedies, I think one of the most common and readily available lines that a pastor might utter is: “I know how you feel.” It’s only natural that as you see someone suffering, you want to let them know that they aren’t alone. The person whose face is drenched in tears has suffered a great loss with the death of his wife, and so naturally, you want to let this man know that you too have suffered—you suffered the loss of a loved one as well. The problem with such an approach is that you might not know exactly how this person feels.
Your experience may be similar, but emotions can be as diverse as personalities. Moreover, it can sound trite when you immediately try to ease someone’s pain by introducing your own story. Or worse yet, you inadvertently try to share an experience with a hurting soul which, in your mind, was far worse. My wife and I have a label for such people, they’re “toppers.” They always try to top your story or experience. True story—I was at a church function where some of the women were talking about a mutual friend who had to undergo a double-mastectomy, which was incredibly painful for this woman. Without missing a beat, a person immediately piped up, “Oh that’s nothing, the pain that I had from having a mole removed was far greater.” To say the least, the women who heard this comment weren’t convinced.
The point here is, we should be slow to try to connect immediately with the person we’re seeking to counsel or comfort. There may be an appropriate time to share your personal experience with the suffering person, but your first goal should be to comfort with your presence, support, and listening ear. Your second goal should be to pray for them. Offer to pray with and for the person. Your third goal should be to point them to Christ. Sometimes simply reading the cries of the psalmist are medicine for hurting hearts. And then, fourth, if appropriate, consider whether something from your own experience might be helpful. In other words, put Christ first and yourself second.
Latest Office Hours with Rev. David Strain!
Office Hours talks with Rev. David Strain, pastor of Main Street PCA in Columbus, Mississippi, about suffering for the sake of the gospel in a mainline national church, his own call to the pastorate, and his recent lectures to our students. David was born and reared in Glasgow, Scotland. He became a Christian through the faithful witness of a high school classmate and began to discern the call to proclaim the gospel early in his Christian life. He received a BA in Fine Art from the University of Dundee, after which he served for two years in student ministry with the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. He earned a BD from Trinity College at Glasgow University, and a Diploma in Theology from the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, Scotland, after which he was called to be the senior pastor of the London City Presbyterian Church in downtown London, where he served for five years prior to coming to Main Street PCA in Columbus, Mississippi in August of 2008. David is married to Sheena, and they have two boys, Euan and Joel.
*Note: Since recording this episode, David is now pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson and is Minister of Teaching and Mission at Frist Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS.
You can find this latest episode here!
Interview with Dr. Fesko on Justification
Recently Dr. Fesko taught at Ligonier Academy for their Doctor of Ministry Program. He taught a course on the doctrine of justification. While he was there, he sat down the the Provost of Reformation Bible College, Dr. Michael Morales, to discuss the doctrine of justification. You can find this interview and discussion here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Silence is Golden
One of the most difficult circumstances a pastor will face is offering counsel in the wake of a death in the church. Death often comes upon a church with little to no warning. I can remember sitting in my study one Tuesday morning as I was engrossed in my sermon preparation when the phone rang. I picked up the receiver and could barely discern the words on the other end of the line through the tears and sobbing, “My sister committed suicide . . .” I immediately recognized who it was and told them, “I will be right over.” I got cleaned up as quickly as I could, jumped in the car, and took off for this person’s house. As soon as I arrived, I was greeted at the door by a congregant who was obviously in emotional shock. As my mind raced through the various things that I could say, I eventually settled on silence.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, sometimes a silent presence is the most effective thing you can do as a pastor. Someone once described losing a loved one to an unnatural death like having a limb severed without the benefit of anesthesia. Death rips the person away without the benefit of time or preparation. When you encounter people who have lost friends or family to a violent death, they might not be in a state of mind to hear much of anything. They are simply at a place where they are incapable of hearing because the pain is too great.
In such circumstances, it is sometimes best to put your arm around the person and let them weep. I have on numerous occasions encouraged people to weep—not to hold back their tears. Your immediate impulse might be to start quoting Scripture or trying to patch up the situation by quoting Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. . .” As important as Scripture is and will be in a person’s recovery, they might simply be unable to hear you. And the question that you have to ask yourself is, Are you quoting the Scripture for their sake or yours? What do I mean?
In the face of death there is absolutely nothing that we can humanly do for the people affected by it. In the face of death I have felt like a fish out of water—nothing I say or do will bring the loved one back, nothing I say or do will take away the pain a person suffers when their loved one suddenly dies. Like a blow to the stomach that knocks the wind out of you, there is nothing you can do—you will be breathless for a moment or two until the air returns to your lungs. In other words, as cliché as it sounds, sometimes time needs to pass before a person is ready to listen to others in the wake of a tragedy. Once you know that a person can hear you, when the initial shock of the pain has subsided, then you have an opportunity to quote and point the person to Scripture.
So when tragedy strikes, be observant and determine whether the person you’re trying to help can hear you. Sometimes, the most effective thing you can do is hold them and, as Scripture says, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).
A Pastor’s Reflections: Simple Evangelism
One of the things that I like about being a pastor is that my vocation gives me an immediate and automatic opportunity to do evangelism. It doesn’t take long for conversation to drift to the question, “What do you do for a living?” I then answer, “I’m a minister,” and that question and answer has typically opened doors for me to talk about the gospel with unbelievers. Sometimes such conversations have occurred at inopportune times, like when I was getting a hair-cut. Sure, I was willing to talk about Christ, but the conversation unfolded like this: “My boyfriend’s mother is a Christian and she says we’re living in sin because we’re living together and we’re not married. Is that true?” Never mind the fact that she had scissors and my hair in her fingertips and the quality of my haircut likely depended upon the answer I gave as I started to sweat profusely from beneath the rubberized apron I was wearing. I held my breath and let loose with my answer and told her about the gospel and why her chosen lifestyle was sinful. In the end, she was receptive and my hair didn’t suffer!
But how can other members of the church easily engage in evangelism? How can you turn a short conversation into an opportunity to discuss the gospel? One of simplest ways that has proven helpful is asking a simple question: “Where do you go to church?” If the person answers that they don’t attend, then you have an open window to invite them to yours. You can easily say, “Oh, if you don’t go to church I’d be happy to host you for a visit at my church anytime you’d like.” At this point the conversation need not get too deep—you’ve simply extended a invitation. Often the conversation will not progress beyond the invitation, but if it does, terrific!
Another practical and useful tool is to equip your congregation with business cards. As pastor, you might have a personal business card, but I believe that every household should have business cards for their church. They can be very simple—on one side you can put the church’s name, address, service times, and website. On the backside of the card you can have a map that gives directions to your location. It’s very helpful to be able to invite someone to church and then hand them a business card with the relevant information.
That’s it! It’s that easy. Just ask a person where they go to church and then hand them a business card. You can make this kind of invitation in a matter of a few seconds. As a pastor, you can promote this kind of community-friendly approach so that your congregation actively seeks to invite people to church.
Latest Office Hours!
Office Hours talks with Mr. Mika Edmondson, who is writing his dissertation on Dr. King and currently serves Harvest OPC as a Church Plant intern, and Dr. Ryan Glomsrud, Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, elder at Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA, and Executive Editor of Modern Reformation, about the life, theology, and legacy of American icon, Martin Luther King Jr.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Keep Your Elders Close
When I entered the pastorate I quickly learned that there were concentric circles of relationships within the church: there is the session (or consistory), the congregation, and the regional church (the presbytery or classis), and ultimately the denomination (the general assembly or synod). In my interaction with these various levels of the church I found that one of the most important is the session, or my elders. In the life of the church I quickly discovered the importance of keeping my elders close.
You and your elders frequently deal with difficult circumstances in the church, whether doctrinal or practical. When someone has a serious counseling issue, you and your elders will definitely discuss the matter and be engaged in counseling. My elders and I would regularly make home visits with members of the congregation, where a number of these issues would arise. Of all of the people in the church, I worked most with my elders. Moreover, given that my elders and I were the ones who had the responsibility of making most of the key decisions in the church, it was vital that we had a good working relationship. To that end, there were a number of things that we regularly did to ensure that we maintained a good relationship.
First, we tried to spend time together outside of our regular meetings. Before our regular session meetings, for example, we would get together for a meal to fellowship. Since our wives were also in attendance, we wouldn’t discuss session business. We simply worked on building our friendships. Along these lines my wife and I made an effort to invite the elders on my session over for dinner on a regular basis. Friendship and camaraderie are important elements for a good working relationship, so I spent time fostering my relationship with these men.
Second, we would regularly discuss the things we were reading and spent time discussing doctrinal issues so we were abreast with the latest developments in the regional church or denomination. Some pastors I know would have their elders pick a theological book to study and discuss together. It’s important to know where your elders are theologically, where agreement and disagreement lie on a session. This can be vital when you’re navigating disagreement and conflict on a session, and most importantly, when you’re resolving conflicts.
Third, our session always spent time in prayer not only for the congregation but for one another. And I regularly prayed for the elders on my session. It’s in times of prayer that we learn to carry one another’s burdens and intercede for each other before the throne of grace.
In these efforts I made a concentrated effort to keep my session close, close to me and close to one another. Among the many ways that a church can falter and even implode is if there’s conflict on a session. If the session is seriously divided, then a church has a disease that affects its core—its leadership. Such a sickness can quickly spread throughout a congregation like a fire through a parched forest. If the only time you interact with your elders is at session meetings, or the occasional conversation on Sundays, then you’ll be significantly disadvantaged when conflicts or difficult decisions arise. One of the ways to inoculate your session against such problems is to keep your elders close so that when difficult times arise, you have a solid foundation from which to negotiate the challenges. If you’re not an elder or a pastor, definitely pray for unity and harmony among your elders. A healthy church has a healthy session.
A Pastor’s Reflections: The Tides of Ministry
One of the interesting things about the pastorate is that there are seasons—there are times when things are very quiet and peaceful, and there are times when it seems like the wheels are falling off the wagon. At first, I didn’t immediately notice this pattern, but the more time I spent in the pastorate I became aware of it.
There will be times when you will feel like Chicken Little—the sky will seem like it’s falling. You will have several counseling situations that are chewing up your time. There will be difficult decisions on the session, and perhaps there will also be a significant conflict at presbytery. All of these things will be happening at once. You’ll probably lose sleep, be stressed out, and feel like you’re hanging on by the tips of your fingers. On the other side of the coin, there will be times when you don’t have any significant counseling situations and everything is peaceful in the church, session, and presbytery. These different tides change every couple of months. Just when you think that you can’t handle any more disruption and rancor, things will calm down and get peaceful. I have no idea why things unfolded in this manner. All I can say is that, this is the way it happened.
So what are you to do? Will you be tossed about during the changing tides? Like a cork bobbing in the water, will you simply move wherever the waters carry you? I hope not. Once I realized the patterns of the tide, I may not have been able to change the circumstances that providence brought to my front door but I could certainly make the most of the peaceful time that I had. During the quiet times I worked as hard as I could to make the most of the time—I studied, engaged in lecture-prep, and read as diligently as I could. While things were quiet I used the time as efficiently as I could. Why? Because I knew that at some point the tide would change and I would not have the same amount of time or peaceful conditions to get things done. In other words, make hay while the sun shines so that when it gets dark, you’re not caught short handed or ill prepared. Another thing to do is pray. While things are quiet pray that the Lord would grant you his grace so that when the tide comes in and things get difficult, you’ll be ready to handle the chaos.
It could be that your pastorate will be quiet and uneventful for the duration of your ministry. Like a beat-cop who faithfully patrols the neighborhood and never has to draw his sidearm, you may never have difficult circumstances. But chances are that since the church is filled with redeemed saints who nevertheless struggle with sin, you will have periods of peace punctuated by periods of chaos. Be prepared for those difficult times.
Latest Office Hours! Media Ecology and Ministry
Office hours talks with Rev. Dr. Gregory Edward Reynolds, pastor of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church in Manchester, New Hampshire; author of The Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age (2001); and editor of Ordained Servant: A Journal for Church Officers, about the intersection between media ecology and ministry.
You can find this latest episode here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Life in the Bubble
One of the challenges that pastors and their families face is life in the bubble. In many other vocations a person can go to work, do his job, come home, and his home life and family stay out of view. My father worked for a tech giant for 37 years and I can count on my fingers the number of times that I interacted with my father’s co-workers. The same cannot be said about the pastor and his family.
When a church hires a pastor there is the expectation that he will bring his family to church with him. This means, like it or not, everyone in the church observes the pastor’s family on a regular basis. For better or worse, people in the church see most everything that the pastor’s family does: they take note of the clothes they wear, the books they read, the car that brings them to church, the movies they talk about, and their behavior. For example, I once rented a car to drive to presbytery and the rental agency was closed on Saturday when I returned. I decided to drive the car to church on Sunday morning and then return it first thing Monday morning. Other factors in this scenario were: I received a free upgrade because the “fancy” car was all they had in the lot; my gas and the cost of the rental were covered by my presbytery, which reimbursed ministers for the mileage they drove. So everything was above-board in this situation. Nevertheless, when I drove up to church that Sunday morning my wife overheard someone say, “Well, I guess we must be paying the pastor too much money if he’s driving a new car!” Rightly or wrongly, I gently informed this person of the situation and they seemed to be relieved.
In another scenario I was walking out of church after a Sunday morning worship service. It seemed like an ordinary Sunday—in particular, there were a number of small children and infants making their usual noises during the worship service. But whose child was singled out as making a lot of noise that morning? Yes, my one-year old son. The reality of the situation was that my son wasn’t in the worship service that morning—my wife had taken him out and placed him in the nursery. Nevertheless, my son was getting the “credit” for making noise.
The point of these two examples is that the pastor’s family is under constant scrutiny. Some people make observations involuntarily—they mean no harm by it but simply see what they see and offer comments. Others, unfortunately, have a sense of ownership—in their minds, since they tithe and contribute to the pastor’s salary, they feel as though it’s their personal responsibility to ensure that the pastor’s family conducts itself in a proper manner. Such people will make regular observations and unwanted comments and criticism.
So what’s a pastor to do? I don’t have any airtight counsel, but here are a few observations of my own. First, pray that God would grant you the grace to live sacrificially before your congregation. As a pastor, you and your family will sacrifice a lot to serve the church, and giving up portions of your privacy is one of those sacrifices. When you go into the pastorate, recognize that you will surrender a lot of your privacy that other people in the church enjoy. But you are ultimately surrendering your privacy for Christ, not for anyone else. Your salary will be public knowledge, your car, home, the clothes your children wear, their behavior, etc, will be under the scrutiny of the church for the sake of Christ and his gospel, not for “career”.
Second, make careful decisions about the things that you do recognizing that people in the church will likely take notice. Do you want to fight a battle over the clothes that your wife wears? Is it worth it to assert your Christian liberty? You may have the right to do something, but is it wise? You may have an outside source of income (savings, family money, a gift) that allows you to make a special purchase (jewelry, a new car, a very expensive tv), but will that purchase cause you more trouble than it’s worth? Will it unnecessarily hobble your ministry?
Third, do your best to give your family time away from life in the bubble. If you can, take a vacation and be discrete about it. Don’t be so quick to offer up details about where you went, where you stayed, what you did. Tell the truth, “We had a terrific and restful time,” but leave the details out. This way your family can have some privacy and not feel like they’re constantly under the scrutiny of the microscope.
If you’re not a pastor, then take special care to give him and his family the needed room to live as normally as possible. Even though you might tithe and pay a portion of your pastor’s salary, I’m aware of no passage of Scripture that grants the individual member of the congregation the right to oversee the minutiae of the pastor’s life. The pastor reports to his elders—they alone have the authority to oversee the pastor and his conduct. Recognize the difference between matters of morality and Christian liberty. And don’t always assume that the pastor’s salary pays for everything that you see. It could very well be a gift or some other form of income that has provided him and his family with a needed amenity. Assume the best, not the worst, about your pastor and his family. And do what you can to make life in the bubble more bearable for them.
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Office Hours talks with Mr. James Lund, Library Director, about his first voyage from Minnesota to California and he answers the question, "Are books obsolete?"
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A Pastor’s Reflections: Disagreements
Some of the most stressful times of my pastorate were in the first two years when I attended my first meetings of presbytery. It just so happened that I was licensed and ordained during one of the most contentious periods of debate in my presbytery. I can remember sitting in the pew listening to the debate rage around me after I had been newly licensed to preach. Oddly enough, the heated debate didn’t deter me from pursuing ordination—maybe I was like a deer in the headlights? Maybe I should have run far, far away? But one of the things that amazed me about the debate was not how intensely it was fought, but how it would be punctuated by laughter. Some of the participants would do their best to bring levity to the debate to relieve some of the tension. But even more amazing than the laughter was the degree of camaraderie shared by a number of the presbyters after the debate.
Yes, the polar extremes of the debate steered clear from one another—that was to be expected. They were not rude to one another, but they did keep their distance. It was, however, the soft middle that was quite cordial. There were people on opposite sides of the issue who were genuinely convinced of one course of action but stood in conflict with other members of presbytery who were equally convinced of another course of action. I think many of these men were humble, could share their views, vote, even lose the debate, and still have good fellowship with the men who opposed them. To be honest, this turn of events initially baffled me. How could people, even the best of friends, stand on opposite sides of a heated debate and still remain friends?
The first answer to this question is humility. All too often we have the tendency to think we have an airtight solution to a problem. We know exactly and precisely how to fix something. But what do you do when someone else thinks that they have the perfect solution but it happens to be the exact opposite of your proposal? This is where humility comes in—I have to be prepared for the fact that I may be wrong or that my idea, however highly I might esteem it, might not be the best solution to a problem. Only a humble person can allow room for other ideas and admit that someone else’s idea is better.
The second answer to the question is recognizing that everyone in the room wants the same goal—to glorify God and edify the church. The all-too real temptation is to think that the person on the other side of the debate is your enemy rather than your brother in Christ. Even worse, our tendency is to think, “My enemy is Christ’s enemy.” But the reality is, just because a person disagrees with you doesn’t automatically mean he disagrees with Christ. We have to have assume the best of people and give them the benefit of the doubt until they clearly prove otherwise.
What this means is that in church life, whether at church business meetings or presbytery (or classis), we should be prepared to live with disagreements. Mind you, I don’t have blatant violations of Scripture or confession in view. I am addressing matters of disagreement where the truth may be difficult to discern. Do you, for example, ordain a man who was unbiblically divorced early in his Christian life who then remarried and for the last twenty years has been faithful to his second wife? A question like this can often create a very long and difficult debate where best friends stand on opposite sides of the issue.
When the matter is decided and the votes are cast, one side will lose and the other will win. How you handle disagreement after the debate is just as important, if not more, than the actual debate itself. Will you have the integrity to fellowship with your brothers after a difficult debate? Will you continue to hold your brothers in high regard? Will you have the humility to admit that you could be wrong? Manifesting Christian character during times of pleasant accord is easy—it’s entirely another matter when you’re in the midst of heated debate. Pray that Christ would enable you to manifest his character both during and after the disagreement.
Jesus Really Is Better!
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" is complete! Now that the series is finished, you have free access to a complete audio commentary on Hebrews! If you haven't listened in, now is the time to do so! Grab your bible and follow along with our host, Dr. R. Scott Clark, and several of our faculty at Westminster Seminary California.
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Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Part I) with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Part II) with W. Robert Godfrey
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Hebrews 8 with Hywel R. Jones
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A Pastor’s Reflections: My Day Off
I can remember one of my seminary professors telling me, “Be sure to take your day off. If you don’t, I promise you, you will take your missed days off all in a row as you lay flat on your back.” In other words, if you don’t take some time to rest, your body will eventually crumble beneath the heavy workload and you will find yourself sick in bed, or worse, in a hospital. I know there are plenty of vocations that have intense schedules, and the pastorate is definitely one of them. When most people have time off, such as Saturdays or Sundays, the pastor works. He might be locked up in his study on Saturday preparing his sermon, and between preaching on Sunday morning, teaching Sunday school, hosting guests for lunch, meeting with a prospective church member, and then preaching the evening sermon, he is wiped out. One of my chosen forms of exercise is running—I typically stick with 3 miles, though I occasionally run 5 or 6. During my first year of ministry by Sunday evening I felt like I did after a 6-mile run—I was exhausted. In addition to this, I found myself working Sunday through Saturday, whether because of my normal work, counseling appointments, or church activities. One of my longest stretches of time was working 36 days straight without a day off. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I recalled my professor’s counsel and I began to be careful about taking my day off.
Initially, I tried to take Fridays off. That day didn’t work out too well. I found that it was a popular day for church events and for people who wanted to schedule meetings. I switched to Mondays, and this was perfect for me. Monday was a fairly quiet, uneventful day in comparison to others. I found that people were too busy trying to get settled at work and there were rarely church events on Monday. It was also a nice respite after a very busy Sunday. On my day off I did my best to get as far away from my work as possible. At the time, my wife worked outside of the home, so I had the day to myself. I would help my wife by cleaning the house, do some laundry, wash and detail the car, go to a movie, read a novel—anything that would take my mind off of my work. If you think about work then your time off might not be all that restful. And, sometimes it’s best to get away from your work and reexamine it with fresh eyes—this can be very helpful to your insight and productivity. On some days off I would go into my garage and work in my woodshop—I would build things. I found that using my hands was quite conducive to using my brain in my sermon prep. The same can be said for exercise—I would go on long runs and afterwards feel refreshed and mentally alert.
From time to time someone would want to schedule something on my day off. Unless it was urgent, I typically declined such requests and scheduled them for other days during the week. But I was always careful in how I declined such appointments and invitations. I always felt that if I told someone, “I’m sorry, it’s my day off tomorrow. I can’t meet with you,” that it would not be well received. Many people in the church do not realize how busy a pastor’s schedule can be and how important it is to take time off. All they know is that the pastor just gave them the stiff arm to take his day off! Instead, I would tell them, “I’m sorry, I’m booked tomorrow. Can we find another day of the week for our meeting?” This answer was true but unspecific. It allowed me to protect my day off without sending the message that my rest was more important than someone else’s problem. Just to be clear, if it was urgent, I always gave up my day off to help someone in dire need. But you need wisdom and discernment to decide when something is urgent. I once worked myself into a raging case of walking pneumonia. I was no good to anyone, neither my family or my church. If you burn the candle at both ends, you will eventually run out of wax!
So in the end, take your day off! It’s important for your ministry, family, and physical well-being. If you work hard, play hard. If you’re not a minister, recognize that your pastor needs time off to rest and spend with his family. A well-rested pastor will be more effective in his ministry to you and your church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Prayer or Gossip?
As a pastor I always did my best to encourage my congregation to pray. Prayer is, I believe, one of the lesser-attended subjective means of grace. I suspect that when times get tough people pray, but I often wonder that when times are good do they pray as much? Therefore, I took every opportunity to have people pray. I was really excited when the women of the church wanted to gather on a regular basis for prayer on Saturday mornings, so I certainly encouraged this activity. But I quickly found out that sometimes prayer is really a thin disguise for gossip.
It’s one thing to pour our souls out privately in prayer before our heavenly Father. I can be freest when it’s just me in my “prayer closet.” I can complain, celebrate, wrestle, and lay my soul bare. But the moment that I pray in public, there are certain responsibilities I have. I may think and suspect a lot of things about many people and circumstances, but that is not license for me to voice them publicly, and especially in prayer. Case in point, several of the elders’ wives reported to me that some of the prayers got out of hand at the ladies prayer meeting. One woman prayed something along these lines: “Dear Lord, please help me and especially my husband. He is so lazy. He never does any work. He just sits around and watches TV. He never wants to read the Bible and he is frequently insensitive and mean to me. He never considers my needs or desires. Please convict him of his sinful behavior. Amen.” This may be an appropriate prayer in private, but is inappropriate and even sinful in public.
All too often public prayers are not a genuine venue for offering up our desires and needs before our covenant Lord but a platform for gossip. A good rule of thumb is, if you’re praying for someone, how might your prayer change if they were sitting next to you? If you were guilty of some private sin, would you want a loved-one, apart from your consent or knowledge, sharing your sinful conduct with a large percentage of the church? Granted, this woman was obviously upset about her husband’s conduct. But a more appropriate prayer would have been, “Dear Lord, please help my husband and me to model Christ and the church (e.g., Eph 5:25ff).” In other words, there are appropriate ways to pray about our greatest concerns and needs, even those that are difficult to share publicly.
In the end, just because we are engaged in a holy activity such as prayer, doesn’t mean that we are in a sin-free zone and are incapable of transgression. Be mindful that your prayers are genuine and not a platform for gossip and malicious talk.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 13 with Dr. Baugh
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" concludes with this final episode. This episode features Dr. S.M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, who takes us through Hebrews 13.
You can find this latest episode here.
Two Kingdoms and the URC
Within the last few months the intesnity of the two kingdoms discussion within the United Reformed Churches of North America has picked up considerable heat with very little light. But one recent bright spot comes from one of WSC's alums, Matthew Tuininga and his post on these matters. Matthew is studying for his PhD on Calvin and the Two Kingdoms doctrine at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He highlights two important issues: (1) when we critique another position, how accurate is our representation? And, (2) how accurate is our theological engagement of the issues? Stated simply, are we accurate, charitable, and helpful to the broader on-going discussion in the church? These characteristics are vital to any subject of discussion in the church.
You can find Matt's post here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Just Follow the Formula
There are all kinds of formulas in life—formulas for getting rich, getting thin, reaching your life-goals, advancing your career, and successfully managing your time. I think that people often lack the wherewithal to figure things out and so they want specific step-by-step instructions. This type of mentality definitely affects life in the church, but especially child-rearing. It seems like there’s more or less a ten-year cycle in the church that new parenting formulas crop up. People will start talking about the latest parenting methods, whether it’s for infants or older children. I’ve seen books, videos, and even Sunday school curriculum floating around churches all with the promise that if parents follow the simple steps and principles, they will successfully parent their children around the various pitfalls of life. Each time this cycle unfolds I find parents buying-in hook, line, and sinker. But what’s worse is not only do they buy-in to the formula, but they begin to evangelize and encourage, even demand, that others follow suit. On occasions far too numerous to recount I’ve been told, “This is the biblical way to raise a child.”
I remember a family that was very insistent upon raising their children in a certain manner: they homeschooled, because “that was what the Bible demanded,” kept their children from TV, did not allow them to listen to rock music, even of the “Christian” variety, and generally kept them close at hand. And sure, I will admit, early on both children looked like paradigms of virtue, all prim and proper. Later, however, when one of the children turned 18, it was like an exploding atomic bomb. Beneath the surface of propriety, a rebellious heart was just busting at the seams and couldn’t wait until he was legally of age to leave home. Days after he turned 18 he left home, within a matter of weeks eloped and married an older woman with a questionable profession of faith, and then within months was sitting in my living room in need of pastoral counseling. There were accusations of physical abuse, incidents where the neighbors called the police, and reports of marital infidelity. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that this marriage ended in an unbiblical divorce. These parents were convinced that if they followed the formula, they were guaranteed success, but as you can see, something definitely went awry.
The problem with the formula mentality is, the Bible has very little specific advice on child rearing. It says nothing about when to feed an infant or what type of napping schedule the child should have. It never says specifically when and how to discipline a child. When do you discipline, for example, and when do you act in mercy? When do you forgive a child to teach him about grace and when do you let him bear the full brunt of the consequences of his sin regardless of how severe they may be?
There are certainly a number of things that the Bible does say, such as, raise a child in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But in between the biblical principles of the Christian life lie a variety of ways that parents can raise a child. Bottom line, there is no one successful formula for raising a child. Parenting depends upon many different factors, such as the temperament and maturity of the child. All you have to do is speak sternly to a child and he will burst into tears, while others may require the responsible administration of corporal punishment. Other children are impervious to corporal punishment so other means of discipline have to be employed.
Yes, we have a moral responsibility to follow the Bible’s instructions on child rearing and point our children to Christ through the means of grace. But in the end, child rearing not only calls for the application of the law but of wisdom as well. Sometimes, you answer your foolish child according to his folly, and other times, you don’t answer your child according to his folly. In the end, if there is one sure formula for parenting it boils down to this: regularly expose your child to the means of grace (the reading and preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer) and then get on your knees and intercede on behalf of your child in prayer before the throne of grace. Pray that Christ would lay hold of your child’s heart and never let it go.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 12 with David VanDrunen
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, who takes us through Hebrews 12.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Counsel or Debate Over E-mail
In the digital age communication is as convenient as ever. We can make a phone call from our cars or the remotest of locations, send an e-mail, or even twitter away till our thumbs get numb. But just because we can do something doesn’t automatically mean that we should do it. As easy as communication is, avoid any serious communication with members of your church via e-mail, twitter, or Facebooks (yes, I know it’s Facebook). Why is this the case? There are three major reasons.
First, digital communication is incredibly impersonal—you lose a lot. There is no eye contact, no voice inflection, no audible form by which a person can determine whether a questionable phrase is intended as sarcasm, compassion, or anger, for example. Second, digital communication is frequently done on the fly. In days gone by people would be very careful about what they wrote because paper was expensive and writing or typing something could take a lot of time. In other words, digital communication is cheap, which means that a person might not give a whole lot of thought to the words that he’s writing before he hits “send” or “post.” This means that someone might quickly fire off some insensitive or thoughtless regrettable words. Third, if you’ve ever been involved in an e-mail discussion or debate, you know that the message thread can get very long and convoluted. In the thousands of words that get splattered onto the computer screen, a person can become lost and confused very quickly, which provides much grist for the anger mill. Bottom line, digital communication is not optimal as a venue for serious communication.
On the other hand, there are a number of reasons why counseling and debate should be handled in person. First, eye contact and body language are crucial in difficult circumstances. A seasoned pastor will be able to tell, for example, when a person is lying merely by reading body language. There are certain “tells” that can alert a person to deceit. Second, in some circumstances, physical contact is crucial. Giving a man a brotherly embrace after serious loss or significant disagreement can be vital to conveying compassion or genuine forgiveness. Third, in debate sometimes forgotten words are best left forgotten rather than “entered into the e-mail transcript” where they fester and cause people to hold on to bitterness.
Yes, digital communication is convenient, but in counseling and debate situations, it’s best to conduct these face-to-face. Sit down over a cup of coffee and counsel or engage in debate. In some circumstances, digital communication may be the only option, though I would sooner resort to a phone call. Leave logistical matters to e-mail (time, place, dates, etc) and conduct serious matters in person.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Disciple Repellant
One of the tasks pastors should regularly engage in is discipling church members and new converts to the faith. There are a number of ways a pastor can do this. He can teach a new member’s class or teach a Sunday School class on a regular basis. But from time to time the pastor will undoubtedly be called upon the disciple one-on-one. It’s in this context that there have been times where I have been extremely disappointed, even to the level that I’ve contemplated ceasing from disicpling anyone. Why, you ask? Well let’s just say that I felt like I was disciple repellant.
Case in point, I once spent the better part of nine months discipling a new Christian convert who was on fire and wanted to learn the Reformed faith. This person was eager to learn and seemed to soak up everything I threw at him. We spent many countless hours studying and discussing the Westminster Confession of Faith. With each step of the way I thought we were making good progress. Shortly after we completed studying the Confession this person, seemingly out of the blue, announced, “I think I’m more Roman Catholic than I am Reformed.” Let’s just say that my enthusiasm tore off across the room like a filled but untied balloon. I nevertheless took this declaration in stride and continued to work with this young man only to have him eventually leave the church. I seriously thought to myself, “Maybe I shouldn’t disciple anyone because it seems like the more time I spend with people, the more I drive them away from Christ.” I wasn’t trying to be funny but was trying to figure out how my efforts to disciple, nurture, and care for members of my church only seemed to turn up weeds and harden the ground I was trying to plow.
As I’ve thought about these disappointing discipleship situations (there was more than one), I have revisited my words and instruction trying to figure out what went wrong. In a number of these scenarios, I have yet to see any positive fruit, even years later. There is certainly the distinct possibility that I was the cause of apostasy, at least in this one above-related example. On the other hand, I have been comforted by the apostle Paul’s ministry. Think of the Corinthian church—what a mess—people were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper (of all things!), unruly women were disrupting the worship services, a man was having adulterous relations with his step-mother and the congregation did nothing about it! Think about the Galatian churches—Paul personally planted these church only to have them immediately embrace false teaching. I suspect in both of these cases the conduct of the churches grieved Paul to the very core of his soul. So, why, then does the Lord allow these things to happen?
While we cannot peer into the hidden counsel of God, we do know what he has revealed. In this regard we should not forget the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-23). Our job, whether as laymen or pastors, is to sow the seed. We tell others of the gospel of Christ and the teaching of Scripture. Some of these seeds will fall along the path, others upon rocky ground, birds will come along and eat some of them, and some of it will fall upon fertile ground, grow, and yield much fruit. What Christ never addresses in the parable is: Who prepares the soil? The parable should remind us that, in the end, Christ must open the heart. Yes, we plant and water, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6).
In the face of wandering disciples, some of which are heartbreaking, I came to the realization that this was one of the ways God was reminding me of my role. My role in discipleship is fidelity, not success. I must teach, share, and point others to Christ. But only Christ, through his Spirit, can effectually call and write his Word upon the walls of our hearts. Moreover, yes, disciples may wander or even apostatize, but we must remember that as long as the person has breath in their lungs, there is still the hope and possibility that they will repent. Hence, even though our window to disciple may close, our window for prayer remains open much longer. In this respect, we should always continue to pray for disciples.
In the end, don’t think that you’re disciple repellant as tempting as the thought may be. And don’t give up. Remember that Christ calls you to fidelity, not success, and that he is the one who will draw disciples to himself.
Are you called to the ministry?
One of the most common questions that prospective students ask is, "How do you know whether you should be a pastor?" For some assistance with this question, you can go here for a number of on-line resources to help you answer that question. There are several videos featuring Drs. Dennis Johnson and Michael Horton. And if you complete the contact form, prospective students can obtain a free copy of Ed Clowney's Called to the Ministry.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Always Pack Heat
I don’t know why, but the phrase, “Packing heat,” is one of my all-time favorites. Perhaps in our politically correct age making such an admission might invite scorn, but I don’t have violence in mind. I just like the idea that when a person is legally allowed to carry a concealed weapon it’s described as “packing heat.” Another similar expression is, “To come in heavy.” It’s a saying from mob lingo, which means that a person is armed and ready for any circumstance.
Well, my advice to pastors and those who are seeking the ministry is, always pack heat. Always be ready to come in heavy. What do I mean by this? No, I don’t mean that pastors should be armed in the pulpit. Rather, I’m saying that as a pastor, you should always be ready to preach the Word! Why should pastors always be ready to preach the Word? Well, they should certainly be ready to preach on Sundays—this is, after all, the main focus of their calling. But there are plenty of other occasions that arise where a minister may be called upon to preach at a moment’s notice. Don’t be caught unprepared.
For example, you should always have a funeral sermon ready to go. You can certainly fill in some of the details, but be ready a moment’s notice. Sometimes you can prepare for a person’s death because of a long-term illness, but at other times death will arrive without notice and take people by surprise. If you wait until that moment to write a funeral sermon, you’ll be hard-pressed. Instead of being able to devote time to ministering to the people who have suffered loss by your personal presence, you’ll be stuck trying to write a funeral message.
If you ever go on vacation or a trip, tuck a sermon away in your briefcase (maybe even two) and be prepared. Sure, you might not be asked to preach, but I know of a number of cases where ministers on vacations have been approached on Sunday morning to preach a message because they have been identified as a minister! If you find a sermon that you feel really good about, and delivered well, then make a mental note of it and keep a spare copy, or these days, upload it to your cloud so you have easy access to it.
In a word, a good preacher will always be prepared, rain or shine, sleet or snow, day or night to bring the Word of God to bear upon his people. Therefore, always pack heat!
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 11 with Dr. Baugh
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. S. M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, who takes us through Hebrews 11.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Make Assumptions
Over the years I have found that people in the church make a lot of assumptions about the people around them. I specifically have in mind the assumptions that people make about singles and married couples without children. All too often I either hear or read people making the assumption that if a married couple does not have children, then they are obviously sinfully neglecting their God-given responsibility to procreate and have children so that they can offer their contribution to fulfilling the dominion mandate. A similar assumption marks those who observe single people in the church. The immediate gut reaction is to assume that the single person must be desperately searching for a spouse and so people try to play cupid to end the single person’s suffering in a life of solitude. In both cases people make invalid assumptions that can sometimes be hurtful or insensitive.
In the case of the married couple that does not have children, we must first recognize that the church does not fulfill the dominion mandate (Gen 1:28) through procreation. After the fall, fulfilling the dominion mandate in this manner became impossible. Through Christ, the last Adam, the church fulfills the dominion mandate through evangelism. The church goes into the world and makes disciples of the nations. The Scriptures have no record, for example, that the apostle Paul had any natural (biological) children, yet he considered the many churches that he planted his children (e.g. Gal. 4:19; 1 Thess. 2:7).
When it comes to childless married couples, our first reaction should not automatically be to assume that they are sinfully avoiding having children. Like Paul’s call for some people to remain single so that they may better serve the Lord (1 Cor. 7:29-34), the Lord may have some couples refrain from having children so they can better serve him. There may be some missionary contexts in certain parts of the world where it would be inadvisable or even dangerous to place children in harm’s way. In other circumstances, some couples desire children very much but for reasons only known to the Lord, they are unable to conceive. Some couples readily accept this circumstance, but for others it is a very painful and difficult providence to endure. To accuse such a couple, then, of sinfully avoiding having children is only to pour salt into a very raw wound.
The same should be said about single people in the church. True, I suspect the vast majority of people in the church will likely end up being married, but there is a small minority for whom being single is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:38). They are free to serve the church in a way far greater than the married person can (1 Cor. 7:32-33). Our assumption should not automatically be to pair off any single person we find.
Single people and married couples without children are two examples that should remind us not to rush to judgment about people’s motives in life. Yes, there are people who selfishly refrain from having children so they can enjoy the pleasures of life. But in all fairness, there are also married couples that have many children out of a legalistic motivation or to boast about their own perceived fidelity to Christ. In both scenarios, whether children are absent or present, sin abounds. Instead of rushing to judgment, we should look at all people in the church with charity and assume the best (1 Cor. 13:7). We should make an effort, first, to get to know people. Maybe in getting to know a single person, we will find that she is very content in her single life because she is serving Christ, and to try to set her up with a potential spouse is one more aggravation, a distraction from her God-given calling. Maybe in getting to know a childless couple, we will find that they have tried to conceive for years but the Lord has seen fit not to grant them children. In such a circumstance, your charity in judgment will enable you to uncover their painful burden and intercede on their behalf for contentment and peace with God’s Providence.
In the end, whether as a layperson or an ordained minister, patience and longsuffering rather than rushing to judgment will serve you and others in the church very well. Don’t make assumptions.
WSC Alum Brian Lee Serves as Guest Chaplain in House of Representatives
Rev. Dr. Brian Lee, the Pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington D. C., and Westminster Seminary California alumnus, served as guest chaplain in the US House of Representatives. He offered the opening prayer for the pro forma session on April 30th, 2013. He has contributed to a number of on-going discussions about the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which you can find here. And he's written other related materials, which you can find at the Daily Caller's website here. Much thanks to Matt Tuininga, WSC Alum, for drawing VFT's attention to this event, which you can find here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Write a Proposal
As a pastor one of the things you can expect is that people will regularly come up with all sorts of ideas and inform you what the church needs to do. When people approached me with numerous ideas, I always had three responses. First, I thanked them for their suggestion, no matter how crazy or sound it was. At a certain level I was grateful that people were thinking about ways to make the church better. Second, I reminded them that I as the pastor could not make decisions on my own authority. I told people that while I was the pastor, I governed the church with the session, with the elders, and all church-wide decisions had to be the action of the session, not of any one individual. Too many churches have benevolent dictatorships or monarchies, and the Bible tells us that pastors and elders rule the church together (1 Tim 3; Acts 15, e.g.). When people heard this, they not only were reminded of this important biblical truth but they were also aware that the elders of the church did their best at overseeing the church. Third, I always asked people to write up a proposal. Why did I do this?
I think far too many people are full of ideas and short on action. They want other people to carry out the work. By asking a person to write a proposal forced them to give careful thought to their idea as well as think about how it might be put into practice. Another benefit of a written proposal is that the person who came up with the idea could ensure that all of the details of their proposal would be written down so nothing would be lost or forgotten. Sometimes in the shuffle of ideas from the one who makes the suggestion, to the pastor, and to the session or consistory, details get lost. There was another benefit to the request to write a proposal—it acted as a weed-out barrier. The people who were genuinely serious about doing things in the church would write up their proposals, but those who were just throwing out ideas seldom, if ever, wrote anything down. I think of all of the ideas I received a good seventy-five percent of them never wrote-up a proposal, so I never carried the idea to the session. This undoubtedly saved the session and me a lot of time and work.
You can certainly act on every idea that you receive, but prudence seems to dictate that it would be helpful to ask people to write-up their ideas in a proposal. There seem to be too many benefits to such a course of action and few drawbacks.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 10 with Dennis Johnson
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 10.
You can find this latest episode here.
Recommended Pastoral Reading, pt. 3
Confessional References for the Pastor’s Study
By Rev. Andrew Compton and Rev. Shane Lems
Pastors in historic Reformed and Presbyterian churches need to be well versed in the studies, theology, and language of the creeds and confessions. Of course, Scripture should be a pastor’s primary study and focus, but our confessions are like teachers that give us lessons on biblical truths. And resources that help us read and understand the confessions ultimately help us read and understand Scripture in a deeper, richer way. Here are some resources that we have found helpful in our own pastoral ministries. At the end of each paragraph you’ll find an abbreviation of the confessional reference discussed in the book (i.e. HC = Heidelberg Catechism, WCF = Westminster Confession of Faith, etc.) We also want to note that while we didn’t list them, G. I. Williamson has written helpful commentaries on several Reformed confessions.
William Ames, A Sketch of the Christian’s Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008).
William Ames (d. 1633), who also wrote The Marrow of Theology, wanted to give seminary students and pastors a brief, helpful, and inexpensive commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. This book is the outcome. It is short and structured quite succinctly. For example, he typically divides the HC Q/A into a few parts, gives a few lessons from the parts, and then lists “reasons” and “uses” of each teaching (“uses” is application). This doesn’t really read like a normal commentary, but it is a helpful Reformed resource on the Heidelberg Catechism. HC
Henry Beets, The Reformed Confession Explained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1929).
This is a standard commentary on the Belgic Confession of Faith. Or, from another angle, it is a short systematic theology since it covers the main heads of Reformed doctrine. There are also a few study questions at the end of each chapter. Though it may be tough to find a copy of this book, if you do have it you might not need another commentary on the Belgic Confession since it is so thorough. BCF
Lyle D. Bierma (ed.), An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005).
This collection of essays on the Heidelberg Catechism is of a more academic bent, but the historical content of the chapters is very informative. Lyle Bierma’s chapter on the sources and theological orientation of the catechism is quite good, highlighting both common ground between Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger and Melanchthon, but also describing what he calls “key silences” in the catechism. While there is, of course, historical theological debate on these topics, Bierma does an excellent service of provoking discussion of why the boundaries of the catechism were drawn where they were. My favorite part of this volume, however, is its inclusion of the full texts of Zacharias Ursinus’ Large and Small Catechisms, which are nicely formatted for easy study and reading, and are footnoted with references to parallels in the Heidelberg Catechism. HC
Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Chicago: Moody, 2010).
Kevin DeYoung has a very readable writing style and has written this popular book with lay people in mind, winsomely presenting the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism and showing its relevance to today. Among his intended audience are those who feel that catechisms and confessions are dry, dusty and irrelevant to the Christian life in the 21st century. In his characteristic way, DeYoung shows just how practical and well stated are the questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism. In my own teaching and preaching, I have especially utilized DeYoung’s vivid illustrations and application. The lessons are short – almost too short – but teach the catechism in a wonderful and fresh way. HC
Peter Y. DeJong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Comemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008).
This is another collection of historical essays, but serves as an excellent backdrop to the text of the Canons of Dort itself. What is more, the writers intentionally highlight how this history continues to be relevant to contemporary issues the Reformed Churches are facing, covering topics such as Bible translation, preaching, pastoral work, and even recent criticism of the Canons from within the Reformed Camp (e.g., G. C. Berkouwer, A.D. R. Polman, H.R. Boer, etc.). The appendices are a veritable treasure trove of historical data concerning the Synod. Originally published in 1968, the reprint of this classic volume is an excellent resource for one’s shelves. CoD
Daniel R. Hyde, With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession (Grandville: Reformed Fellowship, 2008)
Hyde’s exposition/commentary of the Belgic Confession is a readable contemporary resource. Though aimed at lay people, I have found it to be a good reference in my own teaching. Hyde weaves the text of the confession together with historical theological observations and biblical exposition, enabling readers to get a nice sense of the biblical, historical and theological character of the Belgic Confession of Faith. Study questions at the end of each chapter make this volume a good text for use in small group study. This is a nice companion to P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Belgic Confession, The Church’s Witness to the World. BCF
Henry Petersen, The Canons of Dort: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968).
Henry Petersen’s study guide is a unique resource. Written simply and accessible to even high school age students, I found his writing style to be very readable and his organization of the Canons of Dort to be intuitive and helpful. He intertwines exegesis and theology in a nice way, and draws in the insights of numerous Reformed theologians throughout. Though almost 50 years old and difficult to come by (I see only 2 copies on Amazon marketplace!), it is a fine resource that I consult regularly in my own teaching of the Canons. CoD
Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2008).
This is an excellent 19th century commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is solid, full of biblical citations, and clearly written. This commentary is also relatively brief; Shaw himself said he wanted to write with “the utmost possible brevity.” When I study the Westminster Confession, this is one of the first resources I take down from the shelf. Those interested might also want to look at A. A. Hodge and R. C. Sproul’s commentaries on the Westminster Confession. WCF
Zacharius Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg: P&R, n.d.).
Ursinus, one of the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, wrote this commentary to go along with the catechism. I assume many readers of this VFT blog are familiar with Ursinus’ commentary so I won’t to go into details. Suffice it to say that if you are a preacher or teacher who wants a solid and detailed commentary on the HC, this is probably the first one you’ll want to own and use. HC
Johannes VanderKemp, The Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage books, 1997).
This is a two-volume set of VanderKemp’s (d. 1718) sermons on the Heidelberg Catechism. I appreciate this resource because it is the best of old-school Dutch Reformed theology. It isn’t always easy to read since it is photolithographed from an old edition, since the language is a bit archaic, and since it is quite long, but it is a solid and detailed resource for Heidelberg Catechism studies and preaching. HC
Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004).
Thomas Vincent wrote this very short commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism in 1674. John Owen, Thomas Watson, and other such theologians spoke very highly of this commentary. I appreciate it because it is to the point and full of Scripture references. Vincent first gives the Q/A from the WSC and then breaks it down into further questions and answers in which he lists numerous Bible verses to prove the doctrine. Vincent was also very much concerned with the practical side of doctrine, so he often explains how the truths of the Christian faith are comforting to God’s people. (Those interested in a resource on the Westminster Larger Catechism will want to consider J. G. Vos’ commentary.) WSC
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008).
This well-known work of Puritan Thomas Watson (d. 1680) has stood the test of time. It is basically a detailed exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism in extended outline form. But it is more than a basic commentary – it is also in many ways a brief systematic theology that is full of Scripture, illustration, and application. For example, after discussing sanctification, Watson explains how to grow in sanctification. I really cannot recommend this book enough. To be honest, it is probably one of my favorite theology books overall. WSC
A Pastor’s Reflections: Your Ministry and Social Media
In last week’s post I addressed the subject of, “Your church and social media.” As a pastor, you should be aware that the digital age is upon you and social media is a venue for observing the conduct of your church. You shouldn’t ignore Facebook and Twitter. But there is another dimension to social media, and this pertains to your own personal life and especially your ministry. Social media is a strange phenomenon, one that elicits Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde patterns. I have met some of the most quiet, shy, and reserved ministers and elders only to discover that they are a Facebook or Twitter beast. You’d never know it that on the world-wide-web this shy and demure person has an entirely different persona—he is “Mr. Extrovert” on social media and e-mail. My own personal theory is that it’s easy to be an extrovert when you don’t have to look someone in the eye, when the only thing you look at it is a keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Regardless of the reasons, I’ve found that ministers can be just as unwise about social media and e-mail as anyone else, which can be a significant problem for your ministry.
When a minister, for example, decides to go on a Facebook rant about everything that is wrong with the most recent decision at Presbytery, he opens himself up to a number of problems. Why is he willing to call out people on Facebook but not on the floor of presbytery? When a person decides to blog about scattered thoughts, some of which are less than theologically orthodox, how much wisdom is there in such conduct? Sure, most ministers wonder about heterodoxy, but to do so in the public eye on Facebook or on a blog lacks wisdom. Now some people might object and say, “Who cares? Lighten up! I mean, really. What’s wrong with venting? What’s wrong with wondering ‘out loud’ about theology?” From one vantage point, there’s nothing wrong with venting or wondering, so long as you’re careful to mind the context.
I have several close colleagues whom I trust completely—I know they are vaults when it comes to their discretion and confidentiality. I know I can vent to them or bounce theological ideas off of them when I’m trying to figure something out. I would never have such conversations in a public venue. More importantly, I would never write these things down. My parents taught me an important life-rule: Never write anything down that you don’t want someone else to read. This is especially true regarding the world-wide-web.
Churches looking for pastors now do Google searches on prospective pastoral candidates, and if they don’t, they’d be foolish not to do so. If a person or church Googled your name, what would they find? I know of several situations where a candidate for a church was taken out of consideration because of things that he wrote on his Facebook page. In other words, all of us say things in the spur of the moment, things that after further consideration we recognize were unwise or even sinful. It’s one thing to say things like this and entirely another to write them down for the world to see. Even if you write things and then later delete them, search engines can still have traces of what you wrote in their databases.
Some people might object and say, “Why can’t I be free to express myself and offer my thoughts and opinions?” And this type of objection is correct—you are free to express yourself, you are free to exercise your Christian liberty. However, churches are equally free to exercise their rights by not hiring you because of things you have written. Moreover there is the whole question of wisdom. Should you as a minister reveal your innermost thoughts on a host of subjects? Silence is often the better part of discretion. Why open yourself to criticism, judgment, or even rejection when the wiser path is to keep your questionable thoughts to yourself. Why hobble your ministry by posting questionable content on social media? I know of one pastor who took a vacation with several other families from his church and he posted pictures of his trip. There were pictures of his wife in her swimsuit, pictures of people drinking beer, and general vacation-like activity. A number of people in the church complained about the swimsuit, the beer, and even asked the question, “Why hasn’t the pastor asked me to go on vacation with his family?” A few posted pictures created a lot of questions and discontent in the church that was unnecessary, and in my judgment, unwise.
I have heard a number of experienced and even tech-savvy ministers offer other ministers and candidates for the ministry the following advice: stay off of social media.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Social Media and your Congregation
I feel like a dinosaur because I can remember when the internet was really lame and when e-mail was a novelty. When I was a child I actually used 8-track tapes. If you don’t know what that is, Google it! Anyway, one of the things that has come about with the internet is social media, things like Twitter and the Facebooks (yes, I know that it’s really called Facebook). It used to be that people talked with their friends on the phone and kept their deepest darkest thoughts in their journal in their nightstand. Now, people Tweet and post all sorts of things to Facebook. Personally, I have no interest in such things. Why would anyone care whether I just hit Starbucks and had a half-calf-decaf-mocah-choca-ya-ya? But just because I personally don’t care about or have interest in social media doesn’t mean that I’m totally ignorant about social media or that it has no use for the pastorate.
For reasons that still bewilder me, some people don’t seem to realize that the interweb is called the world wide web for a good reason—anyone can read what you post or tweet, unless you keep things password protected or private through your settings, though Facebook can take your pictures and use them if they want (don’t get me started on that one). People post all sorts of things on-line that, to be frank, makes me question their wisdom. How does all of this bear upon the pastor and his congregation, you ask?
I would regularly, and still do, lurk about social media websites from time to time and peer into people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. Even though I don’t have a Twitter account or a Facebook page, I still have my ways of seeing these things! Honestly, my “lurking” was usually pretty innocent. I was looking for people in my church to see what they were up to, and from time to time, when I discovered what they were doing, I became concerned. For example, when you find pictures of one of your church members in her itsy-bitsy-tiny-weenie yellow polka-dot bikini, holding a cocktail with a bevy of other similarly clad women, and she has judged that this is a perfectly normal thing to put on the world-wide-web, to borrow a line from Jeff Foxworthy, “You just might have spiritual problems.” Or when you find pictures of one of your church members and his recent trip to Vegas with his friends and there are more bottles of alcohol in the picture than people, “You just might have spiritual problems.” In the former situation, there were significant marital problems, as the scantily clad woman was married, and the latter problem ended up in adultery and divorce, surprise, surprise. In one instance, one person decided to document his adultery and extra-marital affair on Facebook with words and pictures. To say the least, there were definitely spiritual and moral problems in this instance, not to speak of his own wife and children and their embarrassment and suffering.
So what’s the pastoral point of all of this? The point is, whatever people are willing to show others in public is sometimes but a mere fraction of what actually goes on in private. If you’re willing to show the world what you’re doing in “private” by posting it to the world-wide-web, and the pictures look morally questionable, chances are there are problems. Sure, the pictures could be misleading and there might be a good reason to show off your bikini pictures to the world because in reality, deep down inside you’ve got the heart of and morals of Mother Teresa. But as a pastor, when you encounter such things, you’d be foolish to ignore them. The same principle applies to parents, who might stumble across such things when they’re looking at the things their children say and do on the internet.
In the olden days, like 1990, if you heard of one of your church members going on a drunken bender through the “grapevine” (the old fashioned Twitter feed), you would follow-up with that person to confirm what had actually occurred. Yes, your concern would be for their reputation, but as Christians, our concern should also be for Christ’s reputation. The third commandment tells us not to take God’s name in vain (Exo. 20:7). How many Christians, people who bear the name of Christ, essentially take it in vain by their questionable conduct, which they then document and post on-line? Yes, we have our precious Christian liberty, but as Christians, we also have the responsibility to exercise it carefully. And as ministers, when we encounter members of our congregation doing questionable things, we have an obligation to follow-up and keep an eye on things.
So even if you’re not all that tech savvy, keep your digital eyes open. You just might find information on Facebook or Twitter that will alert you to big problems in the life of your church.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 9 with Dennis Johnson
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 9.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Business in church
One of the things I encountered in my pastorate was people engaged in pyramid marketing schemes and similar types of business ventures. It’s certainly no crime for a person to seek employment in a number of different types of vocations, whether he works for a company or is self-employed. There are some businesses, however, that have a slightly different model, one that requires you as the salesperson to contact all of your friends, invite them over to your house, and sell them your wares, whether it is Tupperware, vacuum cleaners, vitamins and supplements, house-cleaning products, cookware, etc. Initially this seems like a nice way for a person to make some extra money, but upon further examination problems quickly begin to surface, especially when this activity occurs within the walls of the church.
For example, my wife and I knew another couple who were very friendly and expressed their desire to spend some time with us to get to know us better. They initially suggested that we catch a play and then have some coffee afterwards. As the pastor, I was pleased that we would get the opportunity to spend some time with one of the couples in the church. On the day of our scheduled “date,” the couple called us to say that their plans had changed and they couldn’t go to the theater, but could they still come over to the house to hang out with us. Plan B was to watch a movie and then have some dessert. My wife and I saw no problem with this and agreed to the revised agenda. When the couple arrived, things quickly went in a very different direction. The couple unloaded several cases from their sedan and entered the house. They told us that they wanted to show us something before we watched the movie. So my wife and I politely consented. All of a sudden we were in the middle of a sales pitch for cookware. To say the least, I was bewildered and even had to withhold my laughter because of the weirdness of it all.
I began to think to myself, “Well, this is odd, but maybe we can humor them and make a small purchase.” But then this couple gave us the punch line . . . the cookware was only a mere $2,500 and they had a payment plan if we needed one. My wife and I looked at each other, tried to hold the best poker face we could, and politely said, no. Our negative response put a damper on things and the couple packed up their cases and promptly left—no movie, no coffee, no fellowship. And after this whole incident, this couple was quite cold towards my wife and me.
Hopefully this scenario illustrates the problems with this type of business. It’s one thing to go door-to-door to sell your wares and entirely another when you put people in the church in an awkward position, one where they’ll likely say no and you’ll walk away offended. I don’t want to say that people in the church should never conduct business with one another—we can and should. But we also shouldn’t use the church directory as our personal client list either. In fact, in my own church, the elders placed a disclaimer in our church directory as a result of this little fiasco: “This directory is to be used for church-related matters only and not for any other purpose.” People give their contact information to the church for the sake of fellowship and church-information, not so they can sign up to receive sales calls.
Dr. Horton at the ETS Far West Regional Meeting
Our own Dr. Horton will be the plenary speaker at the upcoming meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society Far West Regional meeting, on Friday afternoon, April 19, at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa. His lecture title is, "The Spirit and the People: Evangelical Perspectives."
The link below gives information about registration ($10 for students) for the meeting and/or for the banquet that evening ($15--reservations must be submitted by 4/12), as well as the various papers and presenters throughout the afternoon, after the plenary session that opens the meeting.
This promises to be a stimulating afternoon/evening--please consider attending!
Click here for more information.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Jail and Prison
There are many churches that are filled with respectable people, good, civic-minded citizens. But it may come as a shock to some, but there are some churches that also have members that, for one reason or another, wind up in jail or prison. Given that many churches in this country have nice middle-class members, the news that one of its members has been incarcerated can be a shock. I think that many people shy away from imprisoned people for a number of reasons. But as a pastor, you don’t have the right to ignore any of your church members regardless of where they might be living.
I can remember discovering that one of my church members had been placed in jail. At first, it was a big surprise because on the surface, everything seemed fine. The elders and I had conducted home visits and the family was in church fairly regularly. When they were absent, or when one of the members of the family was absent, there was usually an accompanying explanation—someone was visiting family or was at home sick in bed. So upon hearing the news that this young woman was in jail, I took the necessary steps to visit her. Jail is not as nice as they portray it on TV. As I entered the facility I had the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia—I wasn’t physically or intellectually hobbled, but I definitely felt like I was in a tight and enclosed space. I was searched and went through a metal detector, and then I went to the room with the phone on the wall and thick bulletproof glass, which was scratched and dirty.
As I talked with this young woman I felt like I was finally beginning to get some honest answers to my many questions, though I did speak with the jail officials as well. Once deception enters the picture you should always verify with outside sources. In this case, the jailers told me this young woman had a rap sheet as long as my arm. As I visited her over a number of months, I discovered that she had engaged in some very unwise, foolish, and very sinful activity. This young woman was eventually released on probation, and I made a number of home visits to encourage repentance, but to no avail. As much as she said she was changing her ways, she ended up in jail again for violating her probation. She eventually ended up doing a stint in the state prison.
Regardless of the crime or a person’s state, if he is a member of the church, you as the pastor, and elders of the church, have a responsibility to minister to them. This means regular visits as well sending literature to them when possible (some jail and prison systems are quite restrictive and have all sorts of rules governing how to send prisoners literature). You also have the responsibility to pray and intercede on behalf of such people, and if they are unrepentant, then you need to put them under church discipline. However, there is a sense in which I think that ministers and elders are expected to care for people in prison, but members of the church are a different matter. No one from my congregation took the time to visit this young woman while she was incarcerated. Part of me wonders whether it would have made a bigger impression upon her had a number of church members showed up to visit. This young woman expected me to be there, it “was my job,” after all. When Christ told his disciples, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matt. 25:36), I don’t think he restricted prison visitation to ministers and elders. Should you become aware of a situation where one of your fellow church members are imprisoned, certainly pray for them, but also give serious thought to visiting them.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 8 with Hywel Jones
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" is back! This episode features Dr. Hywel R. Jones, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 8.
You can find the episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Listen, Don’t Critique
One of the biggest problems in Reformed churches, I believe, is that people come to church to critique the sermon rather than listen to it. How so? In Reformed churches there are always a number of theological commandos, people who love to study the Bible, read serious theological works, and encourage and spur others on to improve their own knowledge. These are all good things, however, knowledge apart from humility and love is a dangerous thing as Paul warns us (1 Cor. 8:1). What begins as a thirst and hunger to know God becomes a case of pride and the person no longer comes to eat the meal prepared by the chef but instead comes as the food critic.
Some people will sit down and listen to the preaching of the word, but find problems with the way a text is preached, the illustrations used, the inflection of the pastor’s voice, or the application that the pastor presses. The person will then approach the pastor and raise his or her concerns regarding the “flaws” in the sermon. I can completely understand why pastors find such “counsel” annoying. It doesn’t matter how long he studied in college, seminary, how many hours he invested in exegeting the text, praying over his preparation, or how many hundreds or even thousands of sermons he’s preached over the years. All of this is for naught. In this day and age where expertise has been democratized, all you need is twenty bucks and a website and a person can anoint himself as an “expert” on any subject. I think such a trend is especially true for seminarians—they take one or two classes, have preached maybe three sermons in their whole life, and all of a sudden they’re a preaching expert.
Regardless of the amount of training and study a person might have, we are not supposed to come to church to critique the sermon. We are not food critics but rather pilgrims who need Christ, one greater than Moses, to give us heavenly manna—spiritual nourishment that he brings through the hands of his ordained ministers. Our mindset should be that when we hear the preaching of the word that we are, as the Second Helvetic Confession states, hearing the very living word of God (§ I). We should realize that we have come to listen to the word so that it would critique us, not so that we could criticize the preaching of it. Such is the difference between listening to the sermon and critiquing it—it’s humility vs. pride.
We should also realize that God has established his church in such a way that there are people whom he has assigned to critique the preaching of the word—the elders of the church. The elders have the Christ-given responsibility to guard the purity of the preaching of the word of God. They not only listen but also evaluate and when necessary, hopefully in private or within the confines of the session or consistory meeting, critique the pastor’s preaching.
If you believe, however, that there is a persistent problem with your pastor’s preaching, then there are appropriate steps to take. First, don’t automatically assume you are correct. Maybe your pastor knows more about the text and preaching than you do. Investigate the subject of concern—read, study, and prayerfully reflect. Second, after diligent and prayerful consideration, if you’re still convinced there is a problem, humbly and privately approach one of the members of the session or consistory to make your concern known. Again, be prepared to be corrected—elders of the church are chosen because of their ability to teach and their knowledge of the Scriptures. They might see a gaping hole in your assessment and correct you, and rightly and necessarily so. Third, if the problem still persists, then request to speak with the session or consistory to raise your concerns. Again, be prepared to be corrected. Fourth, if the problem still persists, you have one of several options: (a) live with the problem; (b) peaceable withdrawal; or (c) in accordance with your church order take your concerns to the next level, either presbytery or classis. Again, be prepared to be corrected.
In the end, I suspect that the norm will be that we will not be called upon by Providence to carry a theological complaint to General Assembly or Synod. Rather, our chief responsibility as we carry out the general office of believer is to listen to the preaching of the word, not critique it.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Working hard vs. Working smart
During my time in the ministry I have encountered a number of colleagues that work very hard. However, I think those same colleagues were not very productive. While someone might work very hard on something, it doesn’t mean he will be productive. There is the old cliché, working hard is not the same thing as working smart. I think one of the problems with some ministers is they don’t manage their time well or they create unnecessary work for themselves. For example, a pastor might preach a number of sermon series on different topics that, if done well, requires a lot of prep-work, research, and the like. Starting from scratch on many different subjects takes a lot of time. If you want to teach on the relationship between science and theology, then you’ll have to do a lot of reading that will not be helpful for your next series on the doctrine of justification. The bodies of literature for both subjects do not overlap all that much, if at all. So what’s a person to do?
The first thing you need to do is multitask! Some people believe multitasking is impossible, but they’re wrong. According to the OED, multitasking involves “executing a number of tasks concurrently.” A simple illustration is, walking and chewing bubblegum at the same time. True, there are some people who attempt to multitask and it doesn’t work—they end up doing two things poorly. I can remember my parents telling me to turn off the TV while I was doing my homework. However, not all multitasking is created equal. Fighter pilots, for example, multitask—they manage multiple pieces of information: altitude, attitude (angle of attack), terrain, radar, targets, threats, stores (weapons), fuel, and the like. So, if multitasking is possible, what might it look like for a pastor?
First, recognize that you are in the information business—never assume that what you read or discover will only be used once. When you’re doing casual reading, remember that you can use it for sermon illustrations. When you’re studying theology, you can use it in your sermon prep or teaching. When you find a great quote, document it, and ensure you can find it again. Perhaps consider getting a notebook or using one of the many note-taking apps that are available. I think far too many pastors read useful things, forget them, and have to dig them up again at a later time, which creates more work in the end. There’s a sense in which you’re always doing sermon prep—a useful insight can come along while you’re driving your car or meditating upon the word in your study. Don’t limit yourself as to when you think you might be productive. And never assume you’ll use the information once. If you document and index it, you can ensure you can use it again—multitasking!
Second, if you preach and teach systematically (lectio continua, e.g.), then everything that you’re doing is building accruing theological “interest,” if you will. For example, teach lectio continua through a book of the Bible—do all of your exegetical work, make copious notes, jot down potential illustrations. Once you’ve finished the teaching series, you’ve completed the necessary legwork for a sermon series. What you taught in Sunday School is now the source material for a sermon series in two or three years. When you return to your notes, you will have dramatically cut down your legwork and you’ll only need to review, refresh your familiarity with the text, and you’ve got your material to write your sermons. Your Sunday school prep becomes your sermon prep—multitasking!
Third, when possible, prepare deep! All too often people will do the bare minimum to get by—pastors will read one book, make some notes, and then step into the Sunday school lectern. But when asked to give a lecture to fellow pastors, say at presbytery or classis, they find themselves having to dig deeper and revisit the same terrain they already studied because what was suitable for the layman will likely be shallow and insufficient for serious reflection by fellow ministers. But if you prepare very thoroughly, then you can always trickle a wealth of information slowly and patiently for the uninitiated but you cannot instantaneously generate depth. If you do it well the first time, then you can use the same material in multiple settings—you can regulate how much you reveal of what you know based upon the audience. By preparing deep, you are preparing for multiple scenarios—you’re multitasking!
Fourth, find an area of special interest and stick to it. You can certainly read broadly and for pleasure, but you will find great benefit if you choose an area of specialty and dig deeply. If you read fifty books a year and each one is on a different topic, then you won’t have much depth to your knowledge—you’ll know a little about a lot. But if you devote a third of your reading to your area of special interest, say twenty books out of fifty to one particular topic, chances are you will become an unofficial expert in the subject. The choices are numerous—you can pick one theologian, like Francis Turretin, and read everything you can get your hands on about him. You can pick a doctrine, such as theology proper. You can pick a subject, such as preaching, or even a specific book of the Bible. Again, you’ll find the principle of compounding interest working towards your benefit and your congregation will reap the benefits. You can turn your “leisure reading,” into productive time by studying your area of special interest. Once again, you’re multitasking!
These four suggestions are just a few ways that you can multitask. Always think about how you might work smart. Working hard may look impressive but if it’s unproductive, you’ll burn out very quickly.
Latest Office Hours! An Interview with Mike Brown and Zach Keele
What is a covenant? Is "covenant" something imposed onto Scripture, or does it organically arise from Scripture? What is the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption? How does covenant theology help us make sense of the whole Old Testament? What is the role of the Mosaic covenant in the administration of the covenant of grace? Is there any difference between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants? What is the relationship of those covenants to the New Covenant?
On this special episode of Office Hours, R. Scott Clark will discuss these things and more with two WSC graduates, Rev. Michael Brown, Pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA, and Rev. Zach Keele, Pastor of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, CA, co-authors of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.
You can find this latest episode here.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 27
What’s in a Name?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” (Romeo and Juliet, II, ii, 1–2)
Juliet expressed her love for Romeo in these words. Her point was not that she loved the name of Romeo’s family, Montague, but that his name didn’t matter, as it was Romeo whom she loved. “What’s in a name?” Of course in the heat of passion and love we don’t usually express the best theology. Juliet’s dismissal of Romeo’s name for Romeo himself is a false dichotomy. You see, we love Jesus because his name tells us both who he is and what he has done for us: “You shall call his name Jesus, for [because] he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
“What’s in a name?” What’s the meaning of the name of our Savior, Mediator, and Redeemer? Before I explain let me answer an objection you may have or that others may charge. To study the name of Jesus seems to be childish and overly simplistic at best or downright misleading at worst. You see, you might be thinking this is a waste of our time as it is so simple and plain, but that attitude is rooted in a critical attitude. From the fourteenth century’s school of thought called nominalism all the way up to today’s so-called “Postmodernism,” the Western world has been bombarded by the critical thought that words do not have an objective meaning. In a word, it doesn’t matter what Jesus’ name means, after all, we just love the Lord. Why should I spend time thinking about the name when I could be living for the person? “We need deeds not creeds,” we are told today. Yet God calls us to love him not only by our deeds and in our hearts but also with our minds. The angel revealed to Joseph and Matthew wrote this account because the name matters. C. H. Spurgeon once said:
Oh, that Name of Jesus! I could talk till midnight of its depth and meaning, its sweetness, its power; and when the twelfth hour struck, you would say to one another, “Why, it is midnight, and the Pastor is only as yet upon the threshold of his theme!” There is so much to be said about the Name of Jesus that all the tongues of men and of angels would fail to tell the half thereof. It is the joy of Heaven above; and, meanwhile, it is the solace of sorrow below. Not only is it the most majestic Name, the most instructive Name, the most truthful Name, the most powerful Name, the most sanctifying Name, but it is also the most comfortable Name that was ever sounded in this valley of weeping. (Spurgeon, Only a Prayer-Meeting, 186)
So, the Greek Iesous comes from the Hebrew Yehoshua, which means “the Lord saves.” What do we learn from this?
Jesus is Definitely the Redeemer
The first thing that we learn from the name of Jesus is that He is Definitely the Redeemer. This is not a name he chose for himself. We’ve seen that in our own culture. For example, the Cincinnati Bengals’ receiver Chad Johnson changed his own name to Chad Ochocinco. This is not even a name Joseph and Mary gave him. They didn’t pull out the first century equivalent to the baby name books so popular today. No, this is a name God revealed through Gabriel to Joseph and Mary: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying . . . you shall call his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:20). God told Gabriel to tell them to name their baby boy, Jesus. Why? Because this name would signify who he was: the redeemer.
And that’s no insignificant fact. God, of course, knew what he was doing. He knew that this name meant something significant. No, that being said, Yehoshua and Iesous were common first century names. So it wasn’t as if this name would have been so scandalous to Jesus’ neighbors. He had an ordinary name among an ordinary town of Nazareth. As archaeologists have revealed, Nazareth was a town with about fifty small homes located in an area of about four acres. In our terms one acre would be like a football field, so Nazareth was the size of four football fields (“Nazareth Excavation”).
But you see God gave this ordinary name to his Son but he also attributed the reality of the name to the child: “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The whole history of redemption comes alive in Jesus, then. Here is the Savior promised from after the Fall of Adam, when the Lord God promised a seed to Eve who would crush the serpent’s head by bruising his own heel (Gen. 3:15). Here is the Redeemer whom the Lord promised to Abraham, saying, “And in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Here is the tabernacle in the flesh (John 1:14). Here is the great sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement as well as the scapegoat (Lev. 16). Here is the prophet greater than Moses (Deut. 18:15). Here is the warrior greater than Joshua. Here is the judge to end all judges. Here is David’s offspring to sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:14). Here is the coming son of the virgin (Isa. 7:14), the shoot from Jesse’s stem (Isa. 11:1), and the Lord who would rend the heavens and come down from Isaiah (Isa. 64:1). Shall I go on? Jesus is definitely the redeemer.
What does this mean for you? Since he definitely is the Savior, you are definitely to seek for your salvation in no one or no thing else besides him. You are to be content with him and his saving work in your life. You are to rest in him. You are to be bold and confident in bearing witness about him, because he definitely is the one mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). You are to be ready to give a defense (1 Peter 3:15). You are to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13–16).
Jesus Definitely Redeems
The second thing that we learn from the name of Jesus is that He Definitely Redeems. As the angel says, “He will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Let me say a few things about this.
First, Jesus definitely redeems because his redemption was planned. The angel speaks prophetically from the vantage point of Joseph, “He will save.” Yet from God’s vantage point this was a plan that stretched back into eternity. In the Gospel of John we read over and over and over again Jesus’ words that he came to execute a plan that he and the Father purposed from eternity. In Jesus’ bread of life discourse he says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:36), then Jesus says, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me” (John 6:39). Again, in Jesus’ high priestly prayer we read that the Father gave Jesus “authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given me . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do . . . I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world . . . Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you . . . I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:2, 4, 6, 7, 9).
Second, Jesus’ Jesus definitely redeems because his redemption is powerful. He actually accomplished what he came to do for those whom he came for. “He will [definitely] save his people.” Paul’s “golden chain of salvation” expresses this best, when it says “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Why? “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom. 8:28–30). Listen also to Paul’s words about Christ’s powerful work for this church in Ephesians 5: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27).
Third, Jesus’ Jesus definitely redeems because his redemption is personal. “He will save his people from their sins.” He did not come and die for a faceless mass or an idea of a church, but for distinct persons. Let me conclude by having you read how Jesus describes the personal relationship he has as shepherd with his sheep:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers . . . I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:1–5, 11–15).
What’s in a name? Your very salvation.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Only a Prayer-Meeting, 186.
“Nazareth Excavation Reveals Remains from Time of Jesus,” The Guardian (December 22, 2009). http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/gallery/2009/dec/21/israel-archaeology
A Pastor’s Reflections: Lectio Continua
During the sixteenth-century Reformation one of the standard practices for pastors was to preach lectio continua, chapter-by-chapter, verse-by-verse, through books of the Bible. At Geneva, for example, John Calvin preached from the New Testament in the morning and the Old Testament in the evening. Despite its common use during the Reformation there are many Reformed ministers who don’t preach lectio continua—they preach small topical series on this or that, or perhaps sections of books, such as sermons on the life of David or Abraham.
On the one hand, it’s definitely good and important that ministers preach the word of God. As simple as it may seem, there are too many ministers who ascend the pulpit each Sunday morning and do not preach the word—a sad but true fact. On the other hand, I think that some pastors are afraid to preach lectio continua for various reasons. But over the years I found a number of benefits to this method of preaching that, I believe, commend its use over other practices.
First, by preaching through books of the Bible you teach yourself and your congregation about whole portions of Scripture. Far too many people in the church, pastors included, do not know their Bibles. They have favorite verses or chapters, perhaps, but seldom are they familiar with entire books. What better way can there be to learn about Scripture than to preach through Romans, verse-by-verse? A side benefit of this is that the more you preach through books of the Bible, the better you will know it. Like compounding interest, your familiarity with the Bible will accrue. You will be better equipped for ministry, counseling, teaching, and preaching. You’ll reduce your sermon-prep time, for example, the more familiar you become with the Pauline corpus.
Second, there are some parts of the Bible that are absolutely necessary and foundational for other parts. Here I have in mind the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible. I believe every pastor should make it his goal to preach through the Pentateuch because it is so foundational for everything else in Scripture. Why does the genealogy of Jesus include Abraham’s name? Why was it more than medically dangerous for Jesus to touch lepers? What is the curse of the law? Why did John the Baptist baptize in the Jordan? Why does Jesus appeal to the Noahic flood as the paradigm for his own return at the end of the age? All of these questions find answers in the Pentateuch. Not only will preaching through the Pentateuch give you as the pastor a better knowledge of the Scriptures, but it will ground your congregation in them as well.
Third, it forces preachers and congregations to deal with texts that we might not find appealing, comfortable, or easy. When pastors do topical series, I suspect they will not choose passages that they find theologically difficult or problematic. For example, how many pastors ignore passages that deal with the doctrine of election? If we preach lectio continua, we must deal with whatever doctrines the text presents. We don’t have time for hobbyhorses, unless of course we’re ignoring the text. By preaching the text, it keeps us balanced. Sure, who wouldn’t want to hear about the love of God, but sometimes the text speaks about God’s wrath and justice and we need to hear about it.
Fourth, it was greatly relieving to know that I wasn’t on an “idea treadmill” to try and come up with new and “exciting” sermon series. I could rest knowing that the topic of my next sermon was waiting for me in the subsequent series of verses. In this way, one can say that God decides what you will preach on!
Do these benefits mean that pastors should never preach topical sermons? No. I think there is plenty of room to do topical preaching. In a ten-year period, for example, a pastor will preach nearly 1,000 sermons (if he’s preaching morning and evening). There is more than enough room to preach a number of smaller series. However, I think the bulk of a pastor’s preaching should be devoted to lectio continua preaching for the reasons stated above. After a ten-year period it would be preferable, I believe, to have you and your congregation familiar with the Pentateuch and twenty books of the Bible versus a slew of forgettable topical series.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 26
The Necessity of a Human Mediator
We really have a crazy-sounding religion. We confess that God exists as one, yet three. Totally irrational! We confess that one of those three, the Son, became a human by being born of a virgin. What a fantasy! We confess this God-man died on a common Roman cross to take away sins. Keep dreaming! We confess this God-man rose from the dead. Impossible! It’s no wonder the apostle Paul called the gospel “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18) and its ministers “fools for Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). It’s no wonder that when Christianity is compared to Islam and Buddhism, for example, with their common sense approach of works earning rewards that we sound like proponents of a fairy tale. One comfort to us is the fact that our forefathers faced the same ridicule. As Tertullian said in his treatise, De Carne Christi, “On the Flesh of Christ,”
The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible (ch. 5).
It’s that absurdity that is our wisdom; it’s that impossibility that is our confidence. In our previous meditation we explored why we need a divine Mediator. Here I want to meditate upon why we need a mediator who is also human. In the words of Hebrews 2, this was “fitting” as the Son of God “had to be made like his brothers” (vv. 10, 17).
Necessary for His Work
The first reason why we need a human mediator is that is was necessary for his work. And there are several facets of this.
To Advance Our Nature
The Son had to be human in order “that he might advance our nature” (Q&A 39). This means that since humanity plunged itself into the cesspool of sin, it could not get itself out even to begin moving itself closer to God. Humanity needed a mediator who would step into the mess with it, and then be able to raise it from sin to righteousness, from earth to heaven. In the words of Hebrews 2, “it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham” (v. 16). Angels already dwell in celestially appropriate form, while we must be led there.
To Obey the Law
We need a fully human mediator who could “perform obedience to the law” (Q&A 39). Since we are incapable of offering to God the obedience he deserves and desires, we need someone else to do it for us, as us. In all my disillusionment during college that led me to study and explore world philosophies and religions, I discovered that this is a unique aspect to Christianity. No other system says that someone else does the work necessary for you. All others says it is up to your reason, your abstaining, and your doing. But we have a God who knows us better than that, don’t we?
To Suffer in Our Nature
And since God is just, humanity must suffer punishment for its inability to obey his laws and requirements. Therefore, if we are to be freed from this sentence, we need a mediator who must himself undergo that suffering. This is why we read that our mediator was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10) and that he become man in order to “make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). His entire life, we might say, was one in which he not only walked on the straight and narrow path alongside our steps on broad path of destruction, obeying for us; but that while he did so, he also carried our sins and experienced our suffering in body and soul, leading to the cross. He did this for you!
To Make Intercession as a Fellow Human
Finally, another aspect that makes our religion so wonderful is that our Savior and the salvation he gives us is not just a mater of this divine power, but of his human empathy. We read in the New Testament that he has “one origin” with us as humans, and that we are fellow “brothers” (Heb. 2:11). And since we share together in flesh and blood “he himself likewise partook of the same things” (Heb. 2:14). As the Catechism says, Jesus has “a fellow-feeling of our infirmities” (Q&A 39). And with that “fellow-feeling” he makes intercession for us before the throne of God’s heavenly majesty. With that “fellow-feeling” his intercession for us is that much more genuine and comforting to us. He is able to save us because he “ever lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25). And he intercedes for us, as us.
Necessary for Our Benefit
How does our mediator’s humanity benefit us? The benefit is, of course, that we are saved from sin. In particular, though, there are two ways we can distinguish this benefit.
To Receive Adoption
The first is that because we embrace the eternal Son of God who became man, we are made adopted sons of God (Gal. 4:5). The Son became human that humans might become sons. And now that we are God’s sons [and daughters], “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6) And as his adopted children, we are no longer slaves, but full heirs of all God’s riches (Gal. 4:7). We belong to the eternal family of God! We have full access to all the household blessings and comforts.
To Have Confidence
The other benefit is that we no longer live as strangers in utter fear of God, but have confidence to come before his throne—of grace! It is through our mediator, who is both divine and human, that we as God’s sons have confidence to draw near to that throne of grace and call him not only God and Lord, but Father. And we draw near to him in order to ask him for his mercy and grace to help us in our times of need (Heb. 4:16). Doesn’t this move your soul? You see, when we come before our Father, like our earthly fathers, we find that he already knew what we needed and prepared to give it to us according to his lavish love and great grace for us.
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity.” This story, this doctrine, is totally absurd, isn’t it? Yes, it is, to the mind of reason. Yes, it is, to the ways in which we do business, engage in politics, and operate with our neighbors in day-to-day life. But when we believe this absurd story we become wise in God’s eyes.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Recommended Pastoral Reading, pt. 2
By Revs. Andrew Compton and Shane Lems
In our last post, we recommended books that had to do with the faith and life of the minister of the word. In this post, we give our recommendations on homiletics resources. Again, we realize there are more good homiletics books than these; these are simply some that have been helpful in our own ministries.
Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961).
I first read this book when I was in my early twenties. I can still remember Clowney’s discussion of how not to preach the David and Goliath story (1 Sam. 17). This biblical discussion of what preaching is all about very much molded me as a young man following the call to pastoral ministry. This reminds me: I should read it again!
William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching (Nashville: Abigdon Press, 2006).
As a Reformed minister, I seriously object to some aspects of this book on preaching (specifically the Barthian view of the Word and revelation). However, some insights in this book floored me. For example, consider these words of Willimon: “We cannot preach as if this subject matter of our preaching were at our disposal or under our control…the Word of God is not a commodity we pedal” (p. 157). This book would be good for a pastor who would like a strange but fascinating angle on preaching. Or, for a smaller dose of Barth, see his Homiletics. You’ll love to hate it and hate to love it!
Preach the Word ed. Leland Ryken and Todd Wilson (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007).
This book is a collection of homiletics articles written in memory of R. Kent Hughes. Contributors include David Helm, J. I. Packer, Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Don Carson, among others. The topics covered include hermeneutics and preaching, narrative and preaching, pastoral preaching, expository preaching, and the challenges of preaching (among others). I especially enjoyed Leland Ryken’s chapter on the Bible as literature and how it relates to preaching; I also appreciated Carson’s chapter on the challenges for the 21st century pulpit.
Terry Johnson, Leading in Worship (Oak Ridge: The Covenant Foundation, 1996).This book is not a book on preaching specifically; it more broadly covers the topic of standing behind the pulpit – or leading in worship (as the title says). It really is a book for pastors that discusses and explains liturgy – from Sunday morning and evening to baptism to the Lord’s Supper to funerals and weddings, Johnson covers it all. This is a great help for pastors who want to get into the rhythm of biblical and historic Reformed liturgy, which has everything to do with the sermon.
Martin Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972).
I’ll never forget how I ended up with this book. It was given to me by an elder after one of my first sermons as a young pastoral intern. He gave it to me as a nice gesture to say, “You really need some help with your sermons!” Thankfully, the book was helpful and I learned from it. Some parts of the book aren’t applicable today, and some parts I don’t agree with, but it is one of those homiletics books that Reformed ministers should work through at some point in their ministry (I’d recommend sooner than later).
As an additional note, Zondervan republished this volume as a “40th Anniversary Edition” in 2011. The new edition includes added subheadings and editing updates by Kevin DeYoung. There are also additional essays reflecting on Preaching & Preachers by Ligon Duncan, John Piper, Mark Dever, Bryan Chapell, and others.
David Buttrick, Homiletic (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).
If I’m not mistaken, this book used to be the “bible” for homiletics in mainline churches. I read through it near the end of seminary and found many parts of it to be helpful and applicable. However, some areas were disappointing. I’d recommend this book for pastors who want to study a different form and style of preaching. The book is quite lengthy, so it is not for someone who wants a quick and light read. But it will help the pastor who wants to improve his preaching. The parts he disagrees with will make him think while the parts he appreciates will benefit his own sermon writing and delivery.
Samuel T. Logan (ed.), The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1986).
In our last installment, I drew attention to this volume as it contains several chapters about the Pastor’s Christian life. Relevant to this post, 13 chapters cover the work of preaching, divided into (1) Message Content, (2) Message Form, and (3) The Manner of Preaching. Sinclair B. Ferguson’s chapter “Exegesis,” and Donald Macleod chapter “Preaching and Systematic Theology” are especially profound. The following chapters give excellent insight into the mechanics of preaching: Glen C. Knecht, “Sermon Structure and Flow,” David A. Dombek, “Reading the Word of God Aloud,” and Gwyn Walters, “The Body in the Pulpit.” This collection of chapters is a fine addition to the pastoral library.
Dennis E. Johnson, Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007).
Dennis Johnson’s book on preaching is a wonderful application of redemptive-historical hermeneutics to homiletics. Johnson surveys the homiletical field, drawing attention to the variety of methods used by Reformed preachers. From there, he makes the case for “Apostolic, Christocentric Preaching,” defending it from the New Testament itself and showing how this approach reflects the strong points of various homiletical methods while avoiding their pitfalls. Part 2 is an excellent practicum, even including various notes from Johnson, describing how this method preaches some particular biblical texts.
Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
This 7-volume set is a magisterial survey of church history, focusing exclusively on how the Bible was preached from the early church until today. It is easy to focus exclusively on our own times and our own communities, forgetting that Christian pastors from other times and other places have also brought God’s word to bear in the lives of their own congregations. Hughes Oliphant Old’s survey provides an excellent opportunity to learn from those who have come before us. A fine feature in volume four is that Old not only gives significant background about a number of preachers during the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, he analyzes several representative sermons by those preachers.
Examples of Sermons/Printed Sermons
Reading good homiletical texts can go a long way in helping one to gain skill in preaching, but reading good sermons is a way to tighten the connection between theory and practice. We have found the following collections dealing with various topics to be particularly edifying and instructive:
• James Montgomery Boice & Philip Graham Ryken, The Heart of the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1999).
• John Calvin, Songs of the Nativity: Selected Sermons on Luke 1 & 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008).
• Bryan Chapell (ed.), The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach: Help From Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
• Iain M. Duguid, Numbers: God’s Presence in the Wilderness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006).
• Martin Luther, The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther (Baker edition).
• Raymond C. Ortlund, Proverbs: Wisdom the Works (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2012).
• Klaas Schilder, The Schilder Trilogy (3 vols; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979).
• Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994).
Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive. Indeed, it is hardly sufficient! We only hope that it draws attention to the existence of books like these with the hope that pastors will seek them out and incorporate them into their own homiletical study regimen – for God’s glory and the good of his church.
A Pastor’s Reflections: You Can’t Go Home Again
Among the different types of people you will encounter throughout your pastorate are those who have just moved into town and are looking for a new church home. This is a very common scenario given our ever-transient culture in which we now live. The idea of someone being born, living, working, and ultimately dying in the same town is a thing of the past. Hence, having new people seeking to join the church as a result of being relocated is a common phenomenon. As much as a blessing it can be to have new families join the church, there is some baggage that these new members might bring.
I particularly have in mind the family that wants to find an exact copy of their previous church. It’s only natural that we will seek what is familiar—if we’ve had a positive experience, then we will usually make this a benchmark for future experiences. If we liked the preaching of our old pastor, then he will become the benchmark for the new pastor’s preaching. The same goes for other dimensions of church life. On numerous occasions I had people tell me, “At our old church . . .,” or, “Or former pastor used to . . .” In many respects this is perfectly natural and understandable. However, it sometimes became a problem when the family wanted me or the church to conform completely to their old church’s ways. I had people flat-out tell me, “You need to do things like our former pastor.”
What people don’t realize is that there is a lot of truth to the cliché, “You can’t go home again.” We build up ideals in our minds and augment memories with impressions and emotions that do not accurately reflect reality. When we leave a church, for example, we might quickly forget all of our former pastor’s foibles and shortcomings, idealize him in our minds, and build him up as being perfect. When we compare him to the new pastor, we’re not making a true comparison based in reality but one fabricated in our minds. Even if we were to return to our old church, chances are, it wouldn’t be the same because reality would come crashing in again and we would quickly rediscover all of the shortcomings we ignored when we moved away.
So, then, how are we to proceed, whether as the newly arrived family or as the one under the microscope of scrutiny? The answer lies in ensuring that Christ and the word of God are our index for what constitutes a faithful church. Does the new church bear the three marks of the church: the faithful preaching of the word, administration of the sacraments, and church discipline? If these three marks are present, then we should not expect any two churches to be alike. Yes, churches can adhere to the same doctrinal and confessional standards, but like people, they can all have different personalities. All churches have varying strengths and weaknesses—where some excel others will fall short, and vice versa. Remember that since we are all redeemed sinners, we all have shortcomings. Every pastor has his flaws, and even if we tend to forget them, we should not set any one pastor up as the index by which all other pastors are measured. Christ alone is our standard.
If you find yourself as the target of unfair comparisons, you’ll simply have to exercise patience. Gently remind newcomers that no two churches are alike and that we should all strive to seek Christ rather than hold up superficial standards by which we measure fidelity and success. In the end, there will be some who will learn these truths but there will always be those who will move from church to church on the fool’s errand trying to go home again and never realize that it simply doesn’t exist. Don’t take such criticism personally and recognize that these types of critical words often reveal more about the one making the complaint than the one who is the target of the harsh words.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 7:18-28 with Steve Baugh
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. S. M. Baugh, Professor of New Testament, who takes us through Hebrews 7:18-28.
You can find this latest episode here.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Churchmanship
I think that when many candidates for the ministry imagine life in the pastorate that they most commonly think of standing in the pulpit. True enough, preaching comprises one of the greater portions of a pastor’s responsibility—not only preaching, but preparing, studying, and honing one’s homiletic skills. However, I suspect that few think of the important role that churchmanship plays in a pastor’s ministry.
There is a running joke among many Reformed ministers about long and boring presbytery or classis meetings and the same for meetings of the general assembly or synod. To be honest, there are many times when I’ve contemplated putting a fork in my eye for entertainment purposes because the meeting of presbytery is so boring. Yes, an important point has been made, but unfortunately, not everyone has said it. This means that you often get to hear the same speech multiple times. Or, at least for me, numbers bore me to tears—hand me a financial spreadsheet and my eyes will glaze over. Any time some one gives a financial report I feel like I’m listening to the teacher in a Charlie Brown cartoon, “Wah wah wah, wonk wonk wonk.” It’s all pops and buzzes to me.
My own issues with boredom aside, I cannot stress enough the importance of good churchmanship. In other words, as boring as these meetings can sometimes be, it is vital that ministers are engaged in other levels of churchly ministry. Yes, the local congregation is important and is the most common venue where you will find a minister serving. However, important matters are often discussed and deliberated at the presbyterial and synodical levels. One of the more common ways to serve is on the various committees at the presbytery or general assembly—foreign missions, home missions, Christian education, judicial, appeals and complaints, and the like. Denominations establish committees, for example, that deal with the broader life of the church.
The United Churches of North America (URCNA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) are currently in the process of creating a new Psalter-Hymnal. The work of this committee is important and, if approved, will likely shape the worship and theology of the next generation. This is just one example as to how serving at the level of presbytery or general assembly can impact the life of the church. Yes, you have been called to serve in a local congregation, but you have been ultimately called by Christ to serve the church at large, and being a good churchman is one way that you can carry out this aspect of your pastoral ministry.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 25
The Necessity of a Divine Mediator
“No offence, but Muslims love Jesus as much as Christians do.” On December 19, 2001, this is how John Casey, a Cambridge scholar, entitled an article in the Telegraph on the issue of Christian and Muslim theology. How could he make such a claim? The the Qu’ran teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin, was sinless, was a prophet, worked miracles, ascended into heaven, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Yet there is something missing from that description. There is no crucifixion or resurrection. What else? According to the Qu’ran, Jesus is not divine.
The big question, then, is whether it is necessary that our mediator between God and us be divine? In a word, the answer is yes, for without divinity he could not be our Savior. Why? The Scriptures teach that only God can save: “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior” (Isa. 43:11). For Jesus Christ to save us from our sins he must be God.
We see this in Q&A 38 of the Larger Catechism, which weaves together a tapestry of biblical doctrines about The Necessity of a Divine Mediator.
To Sustain His Human Nature
The necessity of our mediator being divine is to sustain his human nature: “that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death” (Q&A 38). This means that since every sin against an infinite God must receive an infinite punishment, even if a sinless man like Jesus wholly kept the law his entire life in thought, word, and deed, he would not be able to bear the weight of God’s punishment against the sins of the world. All his life and especially at the end when he carried our cross through the streets and on the cross, Jesus was bearing our sins. This was like having the weight of the world upon him. And on top of that the punishment of God’s justice was added, which was like a final weight to crush anything underneath it. No human, however perfect, is able to bear that weight. Only God can sustain the weight of God’s wrath.
To Give Worth to His Work
Jesus’ divinity is also able to “give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession” (Q&A 38). Even if Jesus obeyed, his obedience would only be a human, creaturely, and therefore finite obedience. An infinite justice needs to be satisfied with an infinite payment. Therefore as divine, Jesus’ obedience, death, and intercession has eternal worth. Because of this, you can trust him to completely and sufficiently satisfy your eternal needs of salvation. As we sing,
“My hope is built on nothing less,
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”
To Satisfy God’s Justice
Not only does the divinity of our mediator allow him to sustain the wrath of God and give worth to his self-offering, it also allows him to “satisfy God’s justice” (Q&A 38). An infinite God has an infinite justice towards every sin. This is why in the law the Lord God prescribed all the various the offerings that his people could bring, to cover their sins and to give them hope. But because these were continually offered day after day, year after year, generation after generation, one final sacrifice that had the intrinsic ability to satisfy this justice had to come. And it did in Jesus. Do you realize that without the infinite merit of a divine-man mediator you are still in your sins? This is not just a doctrine; this is what determines your destiny.
To Procure God’s Favor
Another reason our mediator must necessarily be divine is “that he might…procure God’s favor” (Q&A 38). Since only the Lord himself can save, only the Lord can bring us into a state of grace. As Paul says in Romans 8:3–4, what the law could not do God has done by sending his Son. If Jesus is not divine then you can have no assurance that you have had God’s favor earned for you. You will be in perpetual doubt, wondering if it was accomplished, if Jesus’ words, “It is finished,” apply to you.
To Purchase a People
His divinity also means that he was able to “purchase a people” (Q&A 38). Who saved Israel out of Egypt? The Lord certainly used Moses but he was only a means, a minister. The Lord saved them (Ex. 20:2). The prophet Isaiah uses the language of the Exodus to describe how the Lord would save his people again (Isa. 63:7–64:12). Jude mentions that “again,” writing, “Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt” (Jude 5). Just before that Jude called Jesus “our only Master and Lord” (Jude 4). Jesus is the assurance to us that we who believe are a part of his people, his church.
To Give the Spirit
He is necessarily divine so that he is able to “give the Spirit to [us]” (Q&A 38). When he was exalted at the right hand of God, as the God-man, he received the Spirit to then send down to his church (Acts 2:33) to do the wonderful work of drawing sinners into the church. As those who trust in our divine Savior, we are filled not with a spirit of fear, but the Spirit of God, who is a Spirit of power, and of love, and self-control (2 Tim. 1:7).
To Conquer Our Enemies
As God, Jesus our mediator is also to “conquer all [our] enemies” (Q&A 38). At his crucifixion he conquered the Devil (John 12:31; Col. 2:15), at his resurrection he conquered death (1 Cor. 15:54–57), and at his ascension he conquered all powers arrayed against us (1 Peter 3:18–22). Without a divine mediator doing this, we would live in fear of death, the Devil, and hell. But as the writer to the Hebrews teaches us, our powerful Savior has destroyed us from the devil, who held the power of death, and freed us from the fear of death in which we lived as slaves (Heb. 2:14–15).
To Bring us to Everlasting Salvation
Finally, our mediator needs to be divine so “that he might…bring [us] to everlasting salvation” (Q&A 38). His divinity has sustained the wrath of God against him because of our sins. His divinity gave infinite value to his work on our behalf. His divinity has satisfied God’s eternal justice against our sins. His divinity has procured God’s favor of us. His divinity has purchased us to be a part of his people. His divinity has given us the Holy Spirit. His divinity has conquered all foes against us. And his divinity makes him able to “save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him” (Heb. 7:25). Our divine Jesus not only brings us eternal life already in this life, preserves us in that eternal life, and will one day persevere through us to the end and bring us beyond the gates of splendor.
Why is it important for Jesus to be God? Without this being his identity, you would have no Savior.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
A Pastor’s Reflections: Family or Church First?
One of the challenges that pastors face is the dilemma of when to put family or church first. Many within the church never face this dilemma. When there is a church event or function it doesn’t really register in the minds of many, and if there is a scheduling conflict, family always comes first. If there’s a soccer game for one of the kids, well, they will miss the church picnic—there’s hardly a thought given to choosing one over the other. For the pastor, on the other hand, the dilemma appears quite regularly.
Unlike the member of the congregation, the minister typically has to be at most every church function. Unlike the member of the church, the pastor has many other duties to serve the church that will take him away from his family, such as session or consistory meetings, pastoral visits, counseling sessions, meetings of presbytery or classis, and meetings of general assembly or synod. In a number of these scenarios the tyranny of the urgent can also press in. The pastor will frequently face people who desperately need help immediately or the emergency session meeting comes without notice because a problem has quickly arisen in the church, and like a fire, is burning out of control. The pastor’s daughter may have a soccer game, and regrettably, the pastor will have to miss the game due to the scheduling conflict. The pressure upon the pastor in these scenarios is greater, I believe, than the layman’s job. It’s one thing to turn down a late-night meeting for work because money-making can wait. It’s entirely another thing to turn down an emergency counseling appointment with someone who has just lost a child to suicide. I liken the pastor’s calling to an ER doctor—sometimes time is of the essence in a way somewhat differently than for other vocations. So what is the pastor to do?
First, the pastor needs to be acutely aware of the needs of his family and church. He can never assume that his family can suffer absence. There are too many pastors out there who have neglected their family to serve the church and have paid a costly price—it should be no surprise that PK’s (preacher’s kids) are some of the biggest hell-raisers out there—their fathers are seldom present. On the other hand, the pastorate, unlike other vocations, is a regular call to die to one’s self and to carry the cross of ministry—the pastorate involves sacrifice. The pastor’s family will undoubtedly have to sacrifice the presence and participation in family life in ways that other families in the church will not. Given the challenges of the pastorate, I have heard on numerous occasions, and I have asked the question myself, candidates for the ministry asked: “Is your wife supportive of your pursuit of ordained ministry?” If the wife is unwilling to sacrifice, then a man’s ministry is usually hobbled from the outset and often doomed.
Second, you and your wife should discuss and prioritize your schedule regularly. Do not assume that everything is ok at home and that you can always run off to minister to others. If you make this assumption you can quickly find yourself coming home to a house in tatters and have to take a leave of absence or even demit the ministry to tend to your wife and children. I have seen this happen multiple times. If you don’t take care of the church under your roof, chances are your family and your ministry will suffer.
Third, as a member of the church, be mindful of the pressures that are placed upon the pastor and his family. Ensure that he is able to spend quality time with them. Does the pastor have adequate time for vacation? Does he have the finances to get away? It just might be necessary to tell your pastor, “We’ll be fine—you need to go to your son’s baseball game and spend some time with your family.” There will always be church fellowships and meals, but the window of opportunity for a pastor to minister to his own children is a narrow one.
In the end, setting priorities calls for wisdom, but there is a sense in which the pastor must put his family first. If his own house is not in order, then he will be unable to minister to others.
Follow Office Hours!
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" is past the halfway mark! If you haven't been tuning in, now is the time to do so! Grab your bible and follow along with our host, Dr. R. Scott Clark, and various faculty members of Westminster Seminary California.
Listen to these episodes, and catch up with Season 4 here:
Introduction to Hebrews with S. M. Baugh
Hebrews 1 with S. M. Baugh
Hebrews 1-2 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 2:1-13 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 2:14-18 with Joel E. Kim
Hebrews 3:1-6 with Joel E. Kim
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Part I) with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 3:7-4:13 (Part II) with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 4-5:10 with W. Robert Godfrey
Hebrews 5:11-6:12 with David M. VanDrunen and Michael S. Horton
Hebrews 6:13-7:10 with Dennis E. Johnson
Hebrews 7:11-18 with Dennis E. Johnson
You can also listen to every previous episode with our WSC Media mobile application for iPhone and Android.
Subscribe to Office Hours in iTunes.
Listen to all the episodes here!
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 7:11-17 with Dennis Johnson
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 7:11-17.
You can find this episode here!
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 24
How Did God Become Man?
“Jesus Christ is the sum and quintessence of the gospel; the wonder of angels; the joy and triumph of saints” (Watson, A Body of Divinity, 161). He is, as we saw in Q&A 36, the mediator of the covenant of grace between God and man. The question for us to meditate upon is how did he become this mediator?
In turning to the Gospel narratives, recognize something startling about what they say concerning Jesus’ birth. Neither Mark nor John chronicles the birth of our Lord. Mark, in fact, jumps right into the action with John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan River. John begins his Gospel “in the beginning” and then says “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) before moving into the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke, then, deal with Jesus’ birth, that is, how the Son of God was born in human flesh to be our mediator.
Let me say a word about this since you will no doubt watch some documentary type shows during the Christmas television season. Most often than naught these shows will be littered with critical and radical scholars who doubt that Jesus was even born. They will use the so-called “different” accounts above as evidence of this: “Don’t you see, Mark and John don’t even mention his birth, while Matthew just says it happened, but then in Luke you have an angel announcing the whole thing.” Let me assure you that this is the Word of the Lord and that these accounts are not contradictory but complimentary.
The question we need to meditate upon, therefore, is How Did God Become Man?
According to the Will of God
How did God become man? The first aspect of the answer is that it was according to the will of God. We see this in these words: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God” (Luke 1:26). That little phrase, “sent from God,” certainly reveals to us that everything that is about to be accomplished is the will of God.
What is the will of God? It helps us finite creatures to distinguish between his decretive will and his preceptive will. His decretive will is a way of saying everything he determined in his secret council in eternity while his preceptive will is everything he desires and reveals. With the birth of our Lord we are dealing both with God’s decretive will, which he determined from before the foundation of the world, and his perceptive will that is revealed to us in the pages of the Word.
God’s will, then, is eternal. Just to pause and ponder the fact that before there was time and before there was anything else but God, God thought of us should absolutely humble us, should absolutely fill us with awe, and should absolutely fill us with praise.
And since this will is God’s will, it is immutable, that is, it is unchanging and immovable. The devil certainly wanted to change the course of history, yet God’s will remains the same.
By the Power of the Holy Spirit
How did God become man? The second aspect of the answer is that it was by the power of the Holy Spirit. You see, Gabriel promised some pretty stupendous things in Luke 1:30–33: you will conceive, you will bear a son, he will be great, and he will sit on David’s throne. There was only one slight problem: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) In fact, Mary was betrothed to Joseph and they had not yet consummated their marriage. You see there were really two problems.
First, how would the Son of God become a man unless he was born of a woman? This is why the Holy Spirit was needed as the agent of conception. We read in Luke 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
Second, how would the Son of God remain untainted from sin if he were born of a woman? There are only two options. First, we can say that Mary was immaculately conceived herself, and that she was free from original and actual sin. This is the view of Rome. Second, we can let God be God and understand that the Holy Spirit’s ineffable work was precisely to keep Jesus from sin.
What this shows us is how far God would go to secure our redemption. He works through means but he also works above means. He worked through means by sending his Son to be born of a virgin, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, but the Lord also worked above means in conceiving in Mary in a miraculous way. Behold your God, my friend!
Through the Means of Mary
How did God become man? The third aspect of the answer is that it was through the means of Mary. Let me focus in on the aspect that God worked through the ordinary means of childbirth to bring his eternal Son into the world he originally made.
I want you to notice the language of the Catechism where it says that the Son of God “[took] to himself a true body” (Q&A 37). Why this precise language of “true” body? This guards us against the Docetists of the ancient church and even some Anabaptists during the Reformation, who either said Jesus only appeared to be a human or that his humanity was not like ours, but was “celestial flesh.”
Notice also the precise language in Q&A 37 of “a reasonable soul.” What is that all about? A reasonable or rational soul is a way of saying he was and is truly human not only in body, but in every way we cannot see. This became an issue back in the fifth century with a popular teacher by the name of Apolinarius. He taught that in the Incarnation the Son of God assumed a true human body and what he called a lower soul. This meant he was like all other creatures with a body as well as some immaterial aspect to his being. But instead of what is called a rational or reasonable soul, which is what distinguishes us from animals, Apolinarius said the eternal Word took the place of that higher soul. In the end, this meant that Jesus Christ had less of the humanity that we have.
Notice also that the Catechism says the Son was born “of her substance, and born of her” (Q&A 37), meaning, Mary. The angel said the Son would be conceived “in your womb” and born of her, and Elizabeth praised Mary and “the fruit of your womb.” What this means it that Jesus derived his human nature from his mother, Mary, and therefore is like unto us in every way, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).
This is our mediator—truly God and truly man. He is our gospel; he is our wonder; he is our joy; he is our triumph.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2000).
And the winners for the Horton Book giveaway are . . . (drumroll)
And the winners for the Horton Pilgrim Theology book giveaway are . . .
Justin C. of La Mesa, California and Tad G. of Grand Haven, Michigan
Congratulations! And thanks for all of the entries we received! For our winners, your books will go out in the post very shortly. We hope you all continue to read VFT!
Recommended Reading: Unity and Continuity in Covenantal Thought
J. V. Fesko
One of the regular questions I receive is, What book would you recommend to study the history of covenant theology? Up until now there have been very few books that took a comprehensive survey of covenantal thought in Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries. There have been some books on individual figures, which are certainly helpful, but nothing comprehensive. I can now say that this gap in historical theology has been ably filled by Andrew Woolsey in his Unity and Continuity in Covenantal Thought: A Study of the Reformed Tradition to the Westminster Assembly, recently published by Reformation Heritage Books.
Woosley's book was originally his two-volume doctoral dissertation written at the University of Glasgow in the late-80's. Though many works of this period were marked by the Calvin vs. the Calvinist argument, one that has now been thoroughly disproven, Woosley's work happily avoids this unfortunate cul de sac.
If you're interested, you can pick up a copy of the book here. I've read it cover to cover and found it an engaging and interesting read.
Tolle et lege! Take up and read!
Seminary: a Wife’s Perspective
By Gina Davis
Seminary has been one of the best experiences for our family. My husband Nick began attending Westminster Seminary California three months before we got married and has a year and a half left. I love our life as a seminary family for many reasons. Not only because I have met some of my best friends here, but I also have seen my husband transform into such an amazing man and have been able to learn so much from him being a student. Before Calvin (our son) was born I was working at the front office of the seminary and also at the White Horse Inn on campus. Being able to meet and interact with Nick’s professors, the staff, and the families of the school has helped me to further appreciate the training he is receiving.
With this life of being a seminary wife comes many challenges as well. I have watched my husband spend entire nights writing papers for multiple classes, study for finals with a mound of books surrounding him, have seen him stress and pray over sermon prep for 80 + hours every time he is asked to exhort and have helped him with hundreds of flash cards for both Greek and Hebrew. It also means being ok with your dining room table, dressers, coffee table, car, trunk, and nightstand being cluttered with books on a daily basis. Being a seminary wife means being able to realize that although Nick does not have a single full-time “job” and spends much of his time at school studying, he is in a season of preparation for what we believe the Lord has called him to. I can remember many nights where I would be mad at Nick for studying or not working more, but by God’s grace I have now embraced this season and have even grown to love it! I find myself now dreading the idea of him not being in seminary and I also never look forward to graduation each May because that means some of our closest friends must graduate.
Yes seminary is very demanding and time consuming, but watching Nick read God’s Word to Calvin and hearing him ask “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” I am further reminded of how sweet it is and what a blessing it is to have a husband who desires to serve the Lord and his family. Lord-willing one day I will be able to hear my husband preach the Gospel each Sunday and I know that the preparation and training he is receiving at Westminster is vital for him to be able to preach and teach God’s Word for such a time as that. Until/If that time comes I will enjoy him leading us in family worship and having conversations with him about what he is going through in class.
Even if your husband is not in seminary, I am sure you have had to endure the sacrifices of being a wife to a sinner. Everyday I battle with being patient, understanding, and kind to him despite how my day has gone. My prayer is that God would continue to sanctify me through my marriage and through this season of our life together.
A Pastor’s Reflections: Everyone Doesn’t Respond the Same Way
Our culture places a high premium on tears. Watch a Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey interview of someone who is confessing a great wrongdoing and people will tune in to wait for the water-works. If a person confesses to a crime but doesn’t shed a tear, people will likely question the person’s honesty and transparency because their eyes were dry. I think a similar mindset exists in the church. If the pastor preaches a powerful sermon or if the congregation sings a powerful hymn or psalm, I think people expect to see tears. After all, if you’re emotionally moved, you’ll naturally cry, right? If you don’t cry, then quite obviously you’re emotionally bottled-up and refuse to let the Spirit take hold of you.
As common as such sentiments might be, I think they are entirely wrong-headed. I know, I know, some will read this and think that I’m out to defend the frigid temperatures of worshipping among the “frozen chosen,” a moniker that Reformed churches have picked up for their style of worship—we don’t clap, cry, say Amen, or emote in any way—worship is an intellectual exercise! Far from it. Rather, after serving in the pastorate for quite some time I have found that for every person there is a different way of responding to God’s word, whether in its reading, preaching, or singing. Yes, I would see people moved to tears from the pulpit. On the other hand, I would see people sitting quietly, seemingly unaffected by the word. Yet, those same people would come to me after the worship service and tell me how much the word of God moved and stirred their hearts. I always held a poker face (that’s very important in the pastorate), but as they would tell me this I did my best to hide my surprise. I often thought, “Really?! You were moved? I couldn’t tell!”
But that’s the whole point—every one is different and not everyone will respond in the same way. If you place an emotional straight-jacket on your church and expect people to conform to certain norms, you will be quickly disappointed and mis-read your congregation. The Scriptures speak of people who shed many tears, but their sorrow wasn’t genuine (Heb. 12:17). Tears are not the sacrament of a changed heart, the visible sign and seal of an anguished and healed soul. Hence, get to know the people in your congregation individually and pray that the Lord would move them to praise, repentance, or whatever response is appropriate regardless of how many tears they might or might not shed.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 23
The Mediator of the Covenant of Grace
Although the Westminster Assembly did not choose to use the text of the Apostles’ Creed and to exposit its individual articles within its two catechisms, the Larger Catechism still follows the structure of the Creed. Having dealt with the Triune nature of God (Q&A 7–11) and the works of God the Father (Q&A 12–35), the Catechism now deals with the works of God the Son (Q&A 36–56).
In particular, Q&A 36 speaks of the Son of God as The Mediator of the Covenant of Grace.
The Problem to Knowing Him
When question 36 begins by asking, “Who is the Mediator of the covenant of grace?” it is vital for us to pause and consider the problem of knowing this Mediator. There are so many doctrines, ideas, and theories about the identity of Jesus Christ. It has been so ever since the days of the apostles. When Paul wrote to young pastor Timothy in Ephesus, he instructed Timothy to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:3–4). There were all sorts of doctrines running rampant through Ephesian culture, least of which was the nature of God and how he saves humanity. Again, Paul stated that “certain persons, by swerving from [the goals of his good doctrine], have wandered away into vain discussion” (1 Tim. 1:6).
The problems we face in knowing the truth about the Mediator come in the form of Islam, which says Jesus was born of a virgin but that he was a mere man. It comes in the form of Mormonism, which says Jesus is the spirit brother of Lucifer as well as a separate divine being. It comes in the form of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, which outright denies the eternal divinity of the Son. It comes in the form of “prosperity” Christianity, which uses Jesus as a magic incantation for sordid gain.
This is why Paul exhorted Timothy, and all Christians like him, to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (1:18–19). Are you a spectator of this war or a soldier in it?
The Proclamation of Knowing Him
Paul also went on to proclaim that we can know this Mediator, saying, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). What does this mean? In calling him a “mediator,” Paul utilizes covenantal language. In covenants there are two parties or sides. In the covenant of grace there is God on the one side, so to speak, and as Q&A 31 already said, there is Christ and in him all the elect on the other side. This describes the covenant in its most pure essence. In terms of its administration, Paul speaks simply to us sinners for our benefit, saying the two parties are God and man. Hence the Catechism says, “The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ.”
How can we know God? Through Jesus Christ in the bond of fellowship we call a covenant. In calling him a mediator, this means Jesus Christ represents us as humans before the God who not only has made us, but who invites us into his covenant.
But why does Paul say the mediator between God and man is “the man Christ Jesus?” This is such a fascinating description for our benefit. Paul speaks this way in order to assure and comfort us sinners. How so? First, by calling him “the man Christ Jesus,” he has a point of contact with us who are human. God is the Creator, we are the creatures; God is infinite, we are finite. He is different than us. But we can come to know him through means of a mediator who is like us. Jesus Christ is the one whom, “in the fullness of time became man” (Q&A 36; citing Gal 4:4). Second, by calling him the “one mediator,” we are assured that Jesus Christ knows how to represent us before the “one God.” He can stand between God and us on God’s terms as a perfect man. He knows how to represent us as sinners before a holy God. He knows how to represent us and all of our needs before the God who can meet them all. Third, this also means that he can represent God to us, lowly sinners. How? Because he is also true and eternal God. As the Catechism says, summarizing a plethora of Scripture, he is “the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father” (Q&A 36).
As our divine and human mediator, we have one to stand between God and us who “was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, for ever” (Q&A 36). What a God we have! What a mediator we have!
The Purpose for Knowing Him
Finally, as we meditate on the truth of who our mediator is, this motivates us to meditate on the life we calls us to live. What is the purpose for knowing our mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ?
First, we are called to a life of faith. Paul speaks of faith as the act by which we embrace Jesus Christ to be our mediator, but he also speaks of faith as an ongoing activity of the Christian life. Knowing the Savior savingly means having a “sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).
Second, we are called to a life of love. As Paul says, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart” (1 Tim. 1:5). Love to Christ and love to our neighbors is the result of the cleansing of our hearts by the mediator’s work on our behalf. He loved you so; do you love him? He loves his people so; do you love them?
Third, we are called to a life of perseverance. Are you “holding faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:19)? Are you continuing to place faith in the mediator? Are you continuing to love him? The Christian who is drawn into covenantal relations with God as Father through the mediator, Jesus Christ, enters a lifelong pilgrimage from one degree of faith to another in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Faculty Conference Audio and Video
If you didn't get a chance to come to WSC's recent faculty conference this past January, fear not! We have just uploaded our faculty conference video and audio. You can find it here.
Click on the link and watch or listen! There are some terrific addresses on the importance and significance of the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism.
If you like these videos, pass the link on to your friends and family--hit that "Like" button like a little kid beating a wack-a-mole at an amusement park arcade!
Recommended Pastoral Reading, pt. 1
Recommended Pastoral Reading
By Rev. Andrew Compton and Rev. Shane Lems
A good book is sometimes a pastor’s best friend. Books don’t fall asleep during sermons, they don’t bicker with one another, and they generally sit quietly in a room not bothering anyone. Of course, pastors aren’t called to shepherd books, but people. Yet a good book encourages, teaches, challenges, and sometimes even convicts a pastor and helps him shepherd God’s people more biblically and effectively. A good book is like a teacher.
In this series of web articles, we are going to share with readers some books that have been instrumental in our own pastoral ministries. We hope to recommend books that cover topics such as a pastor’s personal life, his shepherding duties, preaching, church life, and also other topics such as theology and history.
Obviously our recommendations are limited; no doubt many of our readers could come up with a list of their own. However, sometimes pastors need book suggestions from fellow pastors. This list is geared toward that end.
Part 1: The Pastor’s Christian Life
Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999).
This is a masterpiece by Watson that explains the many different characteristics of a godly man. For pastors, these are characteristics to pray for and strive towards – characteristics and Christian virtues that Watson draws from Scripture. Read this book and mark it up well; it will also be a good resource for preaching on the topic of godliness.
Thomas Murphy, Pastoral Theology (Willow Street: Old Paths Publications, 2001).
Although a bit dated (published 1877), this book by Murphy is something like a short seminary course on the pastoral ministry put into writing. In chapters 1-3, Murphy discussed topics such as pastoral piety, prayer, and study. These three chapters (along with the rest of the book) continue to be a great resource for the pastor in his Christian life.
John Newton, Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007).
My first exposure to Newton’s writing was in a small book that contained several of his previously published letters. Since they magnified God’s grace and were written in such a pastoral manner, I ended up purchasing Newton’s Works so I could read many more of his letters. Wherever you may find Newton’s letters, I strongly encourage fellow pastors to purchase, read, and mark them. In them you will find the writings of a wise Christian pastor who very much understood what it means that God saves sinners. An added bonus of Newton’s writing is his discussion of his own spiritual ups and downs as a pastor, and how he fought through them by God’s preserving grace.
William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
A pastor needs to have his pastoral furniture thrown around now and again. Willimon’s book does just that. We pastors shouldn’t just read books that preach to the choir, so to speak. Written from a Barthian-Methodist perspective, this book will not leave readers with a warm fuzzy, but it will provoke some great pastoral thoughts. I appreciated Willimon’s chapters on 21st century ministry and the pastor as disciplined Christian.
Tim Chester, The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness (Nottingham: IVP, 2006).
Three words that unfortunately fit in the same sentence are “pastor” and “too busy.” Since we live in a world where people are entirely too busy, the pastor should lead the way in redeeming the time and not lose his head in busyness. This book will help a pastor redeem the time in a biblical way. In fact, it is helpful enough that it makes me want to do a brief sermon series on the topic. I encourage pastors to get this book to help them avoid being caught up in the rat race. (By the way, there is a place and time for leisure in the pastor’s life.)
Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2007).
This excellent book by Bridges will help pastors fight the sins that are so prevalent and common in many Christian lives – including their own. In Respectable Sins, Bridges discusses the sins we tolerate such as anger, anxiety, discontentment, worldliness, and so forth. As usual, Bridges also explains how the gospel helps us fight these sins. This book is helpful because it essentially will help the pastor get the log out of his own eye and teach others how to do so as well – with Christ front and center.
William Bridge, A Lifting Up for the Downcast (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001).
Psalm 42.11 is the biblical touchstone for this book by Puritan William Bridge. Since a pastor will go through temptations, affliction, dark valleys, and violent storms in his ministry, he needs to prepare ahead of time for such difficulties. Though not exactly easy to read in every part, there is enough wisdom in this book that I recommend it as a sort of help to persevere through spiritually difficult times in the pastoral life.
Andreas Kostenberger, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).
I appreciated this book because it has everything to do with being a solid Christian scholar-theologian. Pastors should be both scholars and theologians, but there is a wrong way to go about these tasks – and there is a right way. Kostenberger does a fine job applying biblical principles to the area of study, writing, and “doing” theology and research. Pastors should get this book to help them to be solid, levelheaded, and wise scholar-theologians.
Quentin Schultze, Habits of the High Tech Heart (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).
Pastors have to know how to use and view technology, from smart phones to Skype to sears.com. Not only should pastors know how to use technology so they will not be used by it, they should also be able to give wise advice about this topic to parishioners. Schultze’s book is a great resource on how to use technology with wisdom and moderation. I would like to see an updated edition of the book, since much has changed in the last ten years, but the book is still a great place to start when thinking of technology and ethics.
Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983).
Bridges was an Anglican minister in England who wrote this work on pastoral ministry in 1830. It is one of the most thorough, biblical, and practical books ever written on this topic. Bridges discusses many different aspects of the pastoral ministry including the origins, the call, the work, the trials, the successes, the failures, the studies, and so on. It is rather difficult to read in some places, but since it is well outlined and brief in some places, it is a good resource to slowly work through part by part. This is one of my favorite pastoral ministry books.
Samuel T. Logan (ed.), The Preacher and Preaching: Reviving the Art in the Twentieth Century (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1986).
This edited volume wears a number of hats in the pastor’s library. As it relates to the aim of this post, chapters 1-4 are especially appropriate. The chapters are “The Minister’s Call” by Joel Nederhood, “The Preacher and Piety” by Erroll Hulse, “The Preacher and Scholarship” by James Montgomery Boice, and “The Whole Man” by R.C. Sproul. As time passes and we get into the routine of our work, it is easy to lose sight of the weighty nature of our calling. Reading a chapter from this volume every couple of weeks prevents us from missing the forest for the trees. Meeting preparation, bulletin printing, visitation, denominational business – even counseling and sermon preparation can become the individual trees in our work. How important it is to see them yet again as part of the forest of this great calling!
Rob Ventura and Jeremy Walker, A Portrait of Paul: Identifying a True Minister of Christ (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
Writing in the Puritan tradition, Ventura and Walker examine Colossians 1:24-2:5 in an effort to better understand how the Apostle Paul himself viewed his own ministerial task. With careful exegesis, vivid prosody, and concrete application, they help us to see how our pastoral work is not so far removed Paul’s. Certainly he had an apostolic call that we do not, but Paul’s pastoral ministry has more overlap with our own than it might seem given the nearly 2000 years that separate us. Ventura and Walker offer a challenge to pastors to pursue excellence in our calling so that we might best honor Christ and that we might best shepherd his flock.
Benjamin B. Warfield, The Religious Life of Theological Students (Published as a pamphlet by P&R Publishing, and as part of Warfield’s Selected Shorter Writings, edited by John E. Meeter and also published by P&R Publishing).
Recently John Piper and D.A. Carson wrote the book, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor. And yet just over a century ago, Warfield delivered an address at Princeton Theological Seminary describing a similar reality: pastors are called to be learned and academic, as well as godly and pastoral. In this short piece, Warfield encourages us to go about our work as a distinctly “religious exercise.” As we deal so regularly with divine things and thereby face temptation to view those things as common, Warfield warns us that this is a great danger. And yet he notes that it is only a danger because it is a great privilege. Oh that our studies might never fill our minds without also penetrating deeply into our hearts!
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 6:13-7:10 with Dennis Johnson
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. Dennis E. Johnson, Professor of Practical Theology, who takes us through Hebrews 6:13-7:10.
You can find this episode here!
A Pastor’s Reflections: Listen to your Wife
The role of the wife in your pastoral ministry should always be unofficial. In other words, it’s important to remember that you, not her, are the one who has been called and ordained by the church to serve as a pastor. On the other hand, your wife has a unique unofficial function that many others serving in other vocations do not have. For most men, their wives do not regularly accompany them to work, ever. For the pastor, while there are session meetings and counseling sessions where his wife is absent, his wife goes with him to work every week! The wife will typically attend church with her husband which means that she is at work with her husband—she sees many of the same things that the pastor sees, but from a different perspective, and at other times, she will see many things the pastor will never see.
Let me illustrate this observation with several examples. My wife would sometimes serve in the nursery during the worship service. She saw what happened in the nursery when I could not—I was in the sanctuary leading the worship service and preaching. She would alert me to things, such as certain individuals always serving in the nursery, which meant that they wouldn’t be in the church service. Or she would alert me to some mothers congregating in the nursery during the worship service—they were basically playing hooky. Keep in mind, my wife wasn’t purposefully spying or investigating but simply alerting me to things I wouldn’t normally see. I was able to take appropriate steps to address these issues.
In another instance, my wife alerted me to problems in a family long before I ever received formal notification. To put it simply, women see things somewhat differently than men do. There are many things in this life to which men are blind and literally bumble around. Men can be unaware, for example, that a woman is flirting with them—this is something that a wife can instantaneously spot a country mile away. Along these lines, my wife spotted one of the wives in our church one Sunday—this woman’s clothes were a bit more form-fitting than usual, her hair was done-up very nicely, she was wearing make-up, more so than usual, and my wife noted that she had slimmed down. I just thought she was dressed nicely, my wife, on the other hand, privately and discreetly told me, “If I were a betting woman, I’d say she was having an affair.” At first, I was surprised and thought my wife was being a little too judgmental, so we talked about it and she explained that to see dramatic changes like that in a woman’s dress, comportment, and weight was often an indicator that other things were going on in her life. I left the conversation unconvinced and told no one else about it. Six months later I was surprised and a bit chagrined that my wife was correct. This woman eventually personally confessed to the session that she was engaged in an affair and that it started around the time that my wife had noted her change in appearance.
All of this is to say, for those of you who are married and are in the pastorate or headed there, I suspect one of the reasons why you married your wife was because you value her judgment and wisdom. It would be foolish, therefore, to ignore what she has to say about the things she observes in the church. You do not have to divulge or break any confidences in order to be a good listener, to listen to what your wife has to say about what she observes in the church. You don’t have to ask your wife what she observes either. You simply have to engage your wife in regular conversation about life in the church and then listen to what she has to say. Chances are you will find valuable observations and insights to which you are blind or lack the ability to perceive.
And our winners are . . . (drumroll)
Today we're announcing our winners for the book giveaway of Dr. Fesko's Christian's Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness: Understanding Sanctification. Congratulations to Ronnie B. of Lillburn, Georgia and Bob H. of Bethlehem, Pensylvania! Your books are on their way!
For those of you who didn't win, thanks for submitting your entries and don't fret. There still another opportunity to win. If you've already entered, then you're still entered for our next book giveaway. What is it, you ask?
Wait for it . . . we've got two copies of Dr. Horton's latest book, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples. If you haven't yet entered for a chance to win a book, you can find the entry form here.
We'll let this contest run for the next week and close our entry period by next Tuesday, and we'll announce our winners shortly after that.
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 22
One Bible, Two Testaments
For many of us who have discovered the Reformed expression of the Christian faith after years in other traditions, “covenant theology” was one of the most eye-opening facets of it. It was more than just another part of theology, though. It was like getting a new pair of glasses. The old way we saw the Bible with Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament was like an old, worn out pair of glasses with scratches and lots of scuff marks. This new pair allowed us to see clearly that our one Bible has two complementary testaments.
Of course many will say that this is a theological grid that we’ve imposed upon the Bible. We can take heart, though, that our ancient forefathers such as Justin Martyr and the Epistle of Barnabus viewed the scriptural understanding of its own diversity within unity. During the Reformation men such as Heinrich Bullinger and John Calvin read the Bible in this way to explain how Old Testament saints were saved and why we baptize children, speaking of the one covenant of grace despite varied times and places in which that covenant was expressed.
The Westminster Larger Catechism follows this ancient Christian and classic Protestant way of reading the Bible, of seeing God’s one story with its various acts. What it says is that we have One Bible, Two Testaments.
First, when you read your Bible, recognize its unity. There is one covenant of grace, that is, one plan and story of God the Creator becoming the Redeemer of sinful humanity.
One example of this is in Romans 11. In seeking to answer the conundrum that because most Jews rejected Jesus this meant God’s promises failed, Paul gives two images to describe God’s ancient promises to the Israelites and the fulfillment of them to the Gentiles: “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches” (Rom. 11:16). These images both are meant to impress upon us the unity of God’s work from ancient times through the present.
The first image is that of bread. If the firstfruits of the dough is holy, then the entire batch of bread is holy. There is one batch of dough. Like a baker, God cuts off the first portion to make a loaf; if it is acceptable, then the entire batch will be acceptable. This is his way of saying that God has one plan of salvation. Those whom he called to be his holy people, beginning with Abram, and all those to follow partake of the same calling, the same salvation.
The second image is that of a tree. If the roots of a tree are holy, then the entire trunk and branches are holy. The roots are the patriarchs; the branches are all who draw nourishment from them. Paul goes on to explain in more detail this image in verses 17–24. Despite the fact that there are two kinds of branches, natural (Jew) and wild (Gentile), the wild branches that are grafted onto the tree in place of those natural branches pruned off because of unbelief partake of the same roots.
The theological truth of this is that when we read our Bibles from Old through the New Testaments, we are reading the story of one God, one Savior, one means of salvation through faith, and therefore one people despite their chronological, geographical, and racial differences.
This is not to diminish diversity. This one covenant of grace is administered by God and lived by his people in distinct ways throughout the story of the Bible. As the Catechism says, “The covenant of grace was not always administered after the same manner, but the administrations of it under the Old Testament were different from those under the New” (Q&A 33).
In the Old Testament
When the Catechism speaks of “the Old Testament” it is speaking of everything in the story prior to the coming of Christ, from God’s first promise in Genesis 3:15 through the prophets who preached of the coming Savior.
“How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?” (Q&A 34) It was administered “by promises.” For example, the promise of the seed of the woman to come (Gen. 3:15) gave hope of restoration; the promise that all the nations would be blessed through Abram’s seed (Gen. 12) gave hope for all the world to partake of salvation. It was administered “by prophecies.” Isaiah prophesied a Savior to come who would be God with us (Isa. 7:14). Jeremiah prophesied a Savior to come who would be his people’s righteousness (Jer. 23:6). Ezekiel prophesied a Savior to come who would be his people’s king and shepherd (Ezek. 37:24). It was administered “by sacrifices,” such as the offering of the firstborn (Ex. 12), the daily morning and evening sacrifice (Num. 28), the ongoing sacrifices by the people for their sins (Lev. 1–7), and the annual Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). It was administered “by circumcision.” This was the ritual that the Lord prescribed to Abraham and continued throughout the generations of the Israelites as the means by which his people were distinguished from the nations (Gen. 17). It was administered “by the Passover.” This was the sacrifice and meal before the exodus from Egypt that was remembered yearly by all Israelites (Ex. 12).
All of these means of the Lord administering his covenant of grace with his ancient people “fore-signif[ied] Christ . . . to come.” And all of these “were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.”
In the New Testament
In the New Testament, “when Christ the substance was exhibited” (Q&A 35), we have the reality of all the promises concerning the Messiah. We have the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning his coming. We have the accomplishment of the once for all sacrifice. We have the end of circumcision. And we have the perfect Passover lamb in Jesus Christ.
The substance of the covenant of grace is the same in both Testaments, but how is the one covenant of grace now administered? It is administered in two basic, ordinary, simple, and unadorned ways: preaching of the Word and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
This gets to the heart of a struggle we may have as Christians. When we read our Old Testament, we may ask ourselves, “Why doesn’t God show himself visibly like he did then? Why doesn’t he just thunder his voice from heaven? Why doesn’t he show us dramatic signs and wonders anymore?” What we need to learn again and again is the irony that although the Word and sacraments are ordinary means, as the Catechism says, in them “grace and salvation are held forth in more fullness, evidence, and efficacy, to all nations” (Q&A 35). We no longer need the dramatic; the drama has been performed in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. When we come to that realization, we use the new pair of glasses God has given us in seeing the one story through all the twists and turns. Thank him that you now live in this age of fulfillment. Take advantage of your situation. Read the one story, meditate upon the one Savior’s action in it, and find your place in the story as a participant.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
A Pastor’s Reflections: Pew Widows
I think few people give thought to the reality that pastor’s wives are pew widows each Sunday. What everyone else in church takes for granted, sitting with your spouse and family, is something that the pastor and his family cannot do. There is a certain comfort and benefit of sitting with your family. Not only do you have the company of your spouse or loved one, but you can have the benefit of having your spouse assist you with the children. Training a young child to sit quietly in church can be a real challenge. As a seminary professor, I now know first hand that standing in the pulpit is often a lot easier, in some respects, than sitting next to a fidgeting four-year-old. My wife and I often trade off or go to a man-to-man defense with our children. I take the oldest and my wife takes the younger child. We will then switch for the evening service. That way, if one of us misses part of the service because we had to escort one of the children out to discipline them, we have a good chance of catching the whole service in the evening. The same can’t be said for the pastor’s wife who often has to sit alone or parent solo in the pew.
Sitting alone in the church, though in the midst of a group of people, can be a lonely experience. And parenting solo in the pew can be a very frustrating experience. There was a stretch in my wife’s life where she was hardly able to listen to a complete sermon because she was working with our oldest, either feeding him, disciplining, or changing him. After a while, missing worship even though you’re in the building, can be discouraging.
If you notice that your pastor’s wife is sitting alone, offer to sit with her. If you notice that your pastor’s wife is parenting alone in the pew, offer to help out. Offer to feed or care for the child. As odd as it sounds, sometimes a child will be better behaved for someone else than for the parent.
A pastor’s family has to sacrifice a lot so that he can serve the church. One concrete thing you can do is assist the pew widow in whatever way you can.
Latest Office Hours! Hebrews 5:11-6:12
The Season 4 series of Office Hours entitled "Jesus is Really Better" continues. This episode features Dr. David M. VanDrunen, Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics, and Dr. Michael S. Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, who take us through Hebrews 5:11-6:12.
You can find this episode here!
Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 21
How is the Covenant of Grace Gracious?
Words are such a delicate thing. The weakest word can communicate the most powerful truth. Yet strong words can also become impotent. This can happen when we use words as clichés so often that their impact is lost upon our minds and affections. One such term is grace; one such cliché is covenant of grace. How often do we debate the definition of a covenant? How often do we distinguish different kinds of covenants? Yet in these necessary tasks we can so easily forget the meaning of that little word, grace.
The issue in Q&A 32 of the Larger Catechism is not whether there is a covenant of grace or what it is, but rather, “How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?” How is the Covenant of Grace Gracious? I want us to feel the impact of that word grace in relation to the covenant God makes with us sinners.
In its Provision of the MediatorThe covenant of grace is gracious in its provision of the Mediator. As the Catechism says, “he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him.”
Unlike the covenant of works between God and Adam, in which there was no mediator, after humanity took the plunge into sin the Lord God provided a Mediator between himself and our sinful race. What is a Mediator? It is a person who comes between two opposing parties. And so we read that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). In the covenant of grace God provides Jesus Christ to be our Mediator between God and us freely. He is “between” us as Jesus steps into the gap between a holy God and a sinful people, in order to bring them together in reconciliation. Jesus is very simply “the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15; 12:24). God provided this mediator for us freely, meaning, that God was not constrained to do this. For example, after threatening death to Adam for disobedience we read of the Lord God freely providing a sacrifice of animal skins to cover the sins of the first family (Gen. 3:21).
In the covenant of grace God also offers Jesus Christ to be our Mediator between God and us. It’s not just that God provides him out there, but he offers a Mediator to us here. This offer is expressed so beautifully in these words:
Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. (Isa. 55:1)
This Mediator is offered to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19), to “the whole creation” (Mark 16:15; KJV), and to “every nation…all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). This is a serious and sincere offer of life and salvation, reconciliation with God through this Mediator. As Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
In its Provision of the Holy Spirit
The offer must be received, though. Thus in the covenant of grace, God “requir[es] faith as the condition to interest them in [Christ].” We must have an “interest,” meaning, a communion and participation in the Mediator who is offered. But how is it gracious to require us to do something to receive Christ?
That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. The covenant of grace is gracious also in its provision of the Holy Spirit. God “promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect.” This is important to grasp just how gracious all of this is. God graciously offers his Son as a Mediator and God also graciously provides the Holy Spirit so that we receive the offer. In a sense, God holds out Christ to us in his hand and the Holy Spirit enables us to grasp Christ with our hand. That hand is metaphorical of our faith.
The Spirit has been given to us for this purpose: “to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces.” As Paul says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Whether “this” refers to salvation in general or faith in particular is inconsequential, as Paul’s point is that everything God requires for salvation, God provides; it is gracious; it is a gift; it is free. In particular, the necessary condition of faith is given to us as a gift. Again, in Paul’s words, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). Notice that. It’s almost as if Paul is saying faith as a gift is a given; it’s suffering that he goes out of his way to prove is granted by God.
Just as the Spirit was given to us for the purpose of enabling us to embrace Christ for justification, so too he was given to us for sanctification: “to enable them unto all holy obedience.” One of the promises of the new covenant according to the prophet Jeremiah was just this. As the Lord himself said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33).
This obedience is “the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God.” As James said, our good works are the evidence of our faith: “I will show you my faith by my works” (Jas. 2:18). Our good works are also an expression of our gratitude to God for his saving us from sin. We “who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart” (Rom. 6:17).
This obedience is also “the way which [God] hath appointed them to salvation.” Our obedience cannot be said to be necessary for our justification, as it is impossible for dead sinners to hear and obey God. Yet, obedience is necessary for the justified believer as “the way…to salvation.” What the Catechism is doing here is to use “salvation” in its broad denotation. It is not speaking of justification. Justification is not the whole of salvation; salvation encompasses justification and sanctification, and ultimately glorification. Obedience, then, is the heartfelt response to the grace of God by the child of God who is on his or her way to eternal fellowship with God.
Grace, my friends, is no weak word, and the covenant to which it is attached is no cliché. These are the words of life to us, mere beggars.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Latest Faculty Publications!
WSC has two newly released faculty publications. The first is by Mike Horton, Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples. This is a terrific book for people who are just beginning to study theology and are looking for a simple explanation of Christian doctrines.
The second book is by Dr. Fesko, who is one of the co-editors of the Handboek Heidelbergse Catechismus, which if you haven't already noticed, is published in Dutch. So for all of you Dutch-readers, or for those of you who know people who prefer to read in Dutch, this book is for you! It's a terrific resource for understanding the history, doctrine, and abiding relevance of the Heidelberg Catechism. And fret not, the German edition will be released in May, and God willing, the English version will appear soon!
Tolle et lege! Take up and read!
It's been a while since we've had a book giveaway and the powers that be thought it was high time we did one! The first giveaway is for two copies of Dr. Fesko's A Christian's Pocket Guide to Growing in Holiness: Understanding Sanctification, which was just released here in the States. Two winners will be chosen from among those of you who enter the contest.
Here's how to enter: follow this link, VFT Book Giveaway Entry Form, and fill it out. That's it! We'll announce our winners next week, Thursday, January 31st.
And stay tuned, as we'll have a follow-up giveaway after this one . . . the tension mounts . . .
A Pastor’s Reflections: Don’t Read E-mail on Sundays
Among the regular activities I have is reading my e-mail—I love mail in all forms. Like many, I am wired—I always have my e-mail up when I’m using my computer, I have a smart phone, and if I’m in the car, I’ll have my wife read me my e-mails while I’m driving. I like the thrill (yes, I know I’m odd) of wondering what will arrive—what mystery awaits as the computer chimes and a new message arrives. But on the other hand, I also learned that it was best, as difficult as it might be, to ignore e-mail on Sundays. Why, you ask?
From time to time I would receive an ill-timed e-mail on Sunday morning—someone was informing me of something I didn’t want to hear: a complaint about the church, an announcement that they were leaving the church, or something along those lines. Naturally I would be periodically distracted throughout the day while I was trying to worship and observe the Sabbath. Sometimes I would be in the middle of preaching a sermon and the annoying e-mail would come to mind. So I decided that if I received an e-mail related to church matters, I would leave it until Sunday evening after church or Monday morning.
While its true that we can’t completely isolate ourselves from everything around us on Sundays so we can focus upon Christ, there are certain measures we can take to ensure we aren’t distracted. I think with the exception of the worship service, often Sundays look like any other day. We play games, read books, watch television, turn on the ball game, surf the web, and we don’t make a diligent effort to engage in activities that promote the Lord’s Day, such as reading our Bibles, praying, fellowshipping with the saints, and engaging in works of mercy. I also think the whole issue of distraction is likely becoming a greater challenge in church, even in worship, as smart phones and tablets are making their way into our lives. People now bring their phones and tablets to worship because that’s where they have their Bibles. Ok, fair enough. But what about the e-mails, texts, tweets, and whatever other digital data that cascades into our lives in the middle of worship?
While we may never completely disentangle ourselves from the concerns and distractions of the day, we can certainly make an effort to minimize them. Like my avoidance of e-mails on Sunday, we can turn off, unhook, or disconnect from the digital world so that it doesn’t prove to be a hindrance to worship and observing the Lord’s Day. How can we feast upon the sumptuous meal of word and sacrament if we are nibbling upon the digital snacks that creep into our lives, even in worship? Everything else in this life pales in comparison to the satisfaction that Christ alone provides through the means of grace. The e-mail, tweets, facebook, and texts can wait.