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M’Cheyne and Me

Tomorrow I turn 27. Robert Murray M’Cheyne died at 29. M’Cheyne’s impact has been tremendous on the church though most people touched by his work know it not. M’Cheyne developed the most commonly used through the Bible in a year reading program, continuing in use through avenues such as D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God series and the ESV Study Bible.

As I take a break from work to write this, I’m surrounded by piles of books on inspiration and biblical theology to be used in the slow process of writing curriculum for my new classes. The house is coated with a light covering of dust from a half-sanded 1940s maple coffee table that will be reincarnated as beautiful rather than as the final resting place for leaking glitter bottles. Throughout the halls are boxes full of wedding presents from generous friends, some to be stored and saved and others to be used.

As I think of M’Cheyne’s life and legacy, the temptation arises to grow discouraged about my own. “I must do more for the kingdom,” says the siren voice of the success syndrome. ”If I die at 29, I’ll have done nothing noteworthy and die forgotten.”

But the purpose of faithful service in the kingdom of God isn’t for me to be remembered. It’s that Christ may not be forgotten in this generation and the one to come. The world must pant for justification, not my journals. And so if I were to know that I only had two years left, I’d do exactly what I plan on doing for the next two years: I will teach, that my students might know God. I will love my wife, seeking to bring joy into her life. I will actively serve my church, that I might be a blessing to my fellow believers.

This is what M’Cheyne sought to do. He did not set out to be famous. He was a man who faithfully lived his 29 years. He preached God’s word to God’s people, he wrote letters, he studied theology, he sought to order his life to know God more fully, and then he succumbed to typhus. We do not need men who are consumed by grand visions for the kingdom of God that have themselves as the thumbtack which holds it all together. We need men who will be content to put one foot in front of another day in and day out until they finish the course. May God crucify our ambitions of celebrity.

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Restored and Restoring

The disciples did not know that it would be the last question they would ever ask of Jesus. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Many things had come to pass that this little band of dusty men would have never expected. The fresh wine of Jesus Christ had burst the old wineskins of their expectations. The Messiah was rejected. The Messiah was crucified. And the Messiah rose again. Now, with all of these unexpected detours finally accomplished, Jesus’ friends turn to him again and ask the one question that has dominated their thinking since the very beginning of their ministry with him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The answer is yes. The kingdom has been restored to Israel. But the identity of the Israel to whom the kingdom has been restored is different than the disciples imagined. They have put together some pieces of the puzzle correctly. As they walk away from the temple, fresh threats of the rulers and elders ringing in their ears, they quote David in asking “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?” (Acts 4:25). The lips breathing forth lies were not uncircumcised, but circumcised. The disciples identified the elders and the chief priests as Gentiles, as people in opposition to God’s purposes of redemption. The kingdom has been restored, but to the Israel of God, not the Israel of flesh.

The new identity of the kingdom is a work in progress for the early church. Ethnic enmities do not die quickly. Upon his return from the house of Cornelius, Peter finds himself immediately accosted by members of the circumcision party, contending that it was evil for him to have gone and eaten with the uncircumcised. Years later Paul would put into clear theological terms what those Jewish believers came to understand that day, that “we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:3). Indeed the conversation between Peter and the rest of the apostles in Acts 11 marks a turning point in the book of Acts, for then it is discovered that, “[T]o the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

Not only did the disciples misunderstand the identity of Israel to whom the kingdom was being restored to, they also did not grasp the nature of the kingdom itself. As Pilate investigates Jesus regarding the Jews’ charge that he claimed kingship over Caesar’s domain, he receives the reply, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). It is telling that Pilate entirely believes Jesus’ words. He might be deluded, but he is not the kind of man who would lead an insurrection to overthrow the Roman empire.

But Jesus’ kingdom is not benign as Pilate would dream it. Though it is not of this world, neither is the ultimate kingdom behind Pilate’s own. When offered all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship, Jesus does not dispute Satan’s claim to dominion and possession of the nations. Satan is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2) and “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). For the kingdom of God to advance, the kingdom of Satan must be beaten back. Jesus had given his followers a taste of their coming ministry in Luke 10. As they return triumphant from watching demonic oppressors melt before he declared, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). Through the work of the person of Christ the kingdom of God has been guaranteed victory. Satan has been unmasked as usurper and deceiver. What the disciples finally came to understand was their role in this victory: Go therefore, and be restoring.

Caricature

Johnson tried hard to hold back the tears as he hugged his family for the last time before they began the long trip back home without him. His mother wasn’t so wrapped up in appearing tough and independent, so her tears freely carved channels down her face and onto her blouse. The younger siblings each received a rather self-conscious hug and the dad a firm handshake. Johnson turned, grabbed his last suitcase full of college necessities, and thus began his college career.

Johnson knew his Bible. And he knew the reality of what life was going to be like at a state school. Thankfully he’d been able to get himself transferred away from the original dorm he’d been placed in. The whole progressivist co-ed dorm thing declared itself to be “more exciting” than normal dorm life. Johnson would take dorm life as known to humanity since two guys named Cain and Able invented sharing the bedroom 8,000 years ago, thank you very much.

As he arranged his small collection of family pictures and mementoes of high school success, he thought about the life he was entering, and the life he was now stepping beyond. Gone were the fast friends he had made through youth group, as they were cast about by the wind to different colleges throughout the country. You go where the scholarship money leads. Gone was the church that had taught him how a felt board operated, that had heard his testimony before he was buried into the waters of baptism. Gone was the pastor’s office whose walls would speak of special times of counsel and direction, of words of prayer for protection while beginning this new life. And gone was the Christian high school that promised to prepare its students for life beyond its walls. The preparation was done. It’s show time. New church to choose, new friends to make, and new perspectives to dismantle.

Warily Johnson eyed his biology professor from the fourth row. This was the moment that he had been prepared for. As an infant he had grappled with Gerber creamed carrots in his stomach, and complex arguments for the dating of the Noahic flood in his mind. His school books had all dedicated themselves to debunking Darwinists as foolish and misled, parasites who longed to feed their parasitic egos on the souls of the young and the naive. Darwinists were fools, hardly more competent to draw rational conclusions from scientific data than the monkeys they claimed to have descended from.

And then the professor opened his mouth and addressed the class. He welcomed them, warmly, to their first day of class. Nervous laughter greeted his jokes about first-day experiences. He opened the door of his office to anyone who wanted to talk with him. And then he began to teach. And it didn’t sound as crazy as when Johnson’s pastor had described it in his Sunday morning series on Genesis.

Enter the war in Johnson’s heart. Those who love Jesus have told him that everyone who believes in Darwinism is a fool, a chest-beating buffoon who knows nothing of fairness nor decency. Those Darwinists he has encountered have proven to be none of those things. In fact, it’s the pastor who’s beginning to look like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, for his representation of the insanity of Darwinism and the coherent thought that is marched out every Tuesday and Thursday from 12:20 to 1:50 resemble each other as much as his mother and a howler monkey.

Six months later, Johnson’s mother is overcome with tears before her son again. Only this time there is no joy mingled in the cup of sadness. Just fear. Her son has come home from college, riddled with doubts about everything he had been raised to believe. Not just about the age of the earth, but of the reality of the cross and the existence of God. After all, how could there be a God who orders events so that little Japanese children are swept away by tsunamis and their parents are radiated by exploding nuclear power facilities, doomed to the slow surrender of their bodies to cancer.

“How did this happen?” she cries to her husband. “How does everything we taught him for 18 years get swept away by the current of everything he was taught to beware of?”

If we content ourselves with teaching caricature, we’ll accomplish nothing more than to create an army of people who desert what we’ve taught them for what we fear most they’ll believe.

MacArthur, Patrick and the Tribal Identity

In case you missed it, the sun arose today on yet another controversy in the conservative Christianity blogosphere. I usually don’t even bother to read these, as they come and go and are almost entirely based on soundbytes that are irresponsibly pulled from a larger context. You know what I mean: YouTube videos with names like “PIPER PREACHES THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL” or “DRISCOLL DENIES THAT GOD IS MERCIFUL.” But this controversy struck me in a way others haven’t. Namely, the responses of the men in question have widely differed from those who follow these men and count them as heroes.

The kindling for this brush fire arose from an interview between Phil Johnson and Dr. MacArthur. In responding to a question, Dr. MacArthur chastized Darrin Patrick’s book Church Planter for encouraging pastors who are undertaking church planting to design their own doctrine and theological beliefs.  Here’s the passage MacArthur was referencing:

One of the common errors of young men who surrender to ministry is to simply adopt the model of a church they have experienced or idolized. A similar mistake is to blindly accept the ministry philosophy and practice of a ministry hero. The man who is experiencing head confirmation is thoughtful about his own philosophy of ministry, his own ministry style, his own theological beliefs, his own unique gifts, abilities, and desires. In short, there is a uniqueness to the way  he wants to do ministry (page 37, italics in original).

I watched the movie Luther the other night, the third time in five years. You know what? Tetzel plied his damnable trade again. Luther discovered justification by faith again. Katie showed up and they got married again. And the conversation between the followers of John MacArthur and the followers of the Acts 29 movement have been just as predictable as the movie Luther was the third time through. A quick survey of the comments left on Tim Challies’ blog runs the average to about 3-1 against MacArthur. The comments are exactly what you’d expect:

“I love MacArthur’s teaching, but he’s so ungracious towards his brothers in Christ. I wish he wasn’t so divisive.”

“Such a blatant violation of the biblical principles found in Matthew 18. Someone needs to call MacArthur out on this for not speaking to Patrick privately first.” (Which is a really ironic comment when you think about it…)

“MacArthur probably hasn’t even bothered to read Patrick’s whole book.”

“I haven’t read Patrick’s book, but I really trust and respect Dr. MacArthur. And I don’t know about those Acts 29 guys.”

Have we as the church become the same as our nation? Have we become an assortment of pundits each with an opinion based  upon nothing more weighty than which tribe we most readily identify ourselves with? We recognize these evils in politics and the incessant squaking of Fox News and the New York Times. But do we recognize it in ourselves?

Who in this conversation are you most likely do give the benefit of the doubt to – Patrick or MacArthur? There’s nothing wrong with that per se, as we all have to constantly weigh small snippets of words against the greater whole of an individual’s work and ethos. It becomes wrong when we make a particular style or ministry our own personal identity.  When our appreciation for and natural identification with one minister’s or ministry’s particular style eclipses our identification with the gospel and truth, we have ceased to think as the redeemed choosing rather to content ourselves with petty partisanism. When we hear of our heroes squaring off with another minister are we willing to seriously consider and ponder the critiques, or do we blindly grab our banner and lance and ride forth to do battle with the dark knights of the enemy’s blogging horde?

Shortly after the critique of Patrick’s book, Johnson asked MacArthur if any of his doctrine had changed in the middle of writing his commentary series. MacArthur responded by reminiscing about Michael Horton “catching [him] and taking [him] behind the woodshed” about an improper distinction between imputed and imparted righteousness in his volume on Romans. And MacArthur was thankful for it, for it improved his understanding of God and corrected an underdeveloped aspect of his theology. When a man writes a book and publishes his thoughts, he is inviting his peers to critique him. Matthew 18 is about personal sin, not a discussion about proper ways of addressing theological concerns in the Christian publication world. If it was, I’m not sure the blogging world could exist.

We have much to learn from the humility of these two men. As their followers have been sharpening their knives and preparing for blood, they’ve been planning to sharpen each other. MacArthur published a follow up article, clarifying that he wasn’t attacking Patrick or accusing him of being unorthodox. And Patrick tweeted “Dr. MacArthur you are a hero to me. Period.” And “Dr. MacArthur, many young pastors like me didn’t have dads. We need godly, established men like you to father us.” And “I would be happy to fly to SoCal on my own dime to be mentored and coached and get to know you.” To which the men agreed to do so.

I haven’t said anything about the actual content of the disagreement. In short, MacArthur’s probably right in identifying something that should not have been said in Patrick’s book. From knowing and participating in both ministries, I can say that Patrick isn’t talking about designing your own doctrine. But that’s how the book reads and that point needs to be modified and communicated better. And Patrick’s probably right in saying that it’s disaster for one pastor to try and duplicate the ministry of someone he idolizes, for God has made us all unique. Each tribe needs the others, for they challenge each other to clarify and purify both the content and the communication of our doctrine and ministry philosophies.

God make us all men like MacArthur and Patrick.

Little & Much

The church sanctuary needed painting today. I hate painting. I’ve painted so many houses some various shade of tan that I could probably cut in the White House blindfolded. But it needed to be done, so I spent four hours doing the detailed lines on our two-toned greyscale sanctuary paint scheme.

Honestly, I really really wanted to dodge it. I almost did. And I could have done so while covering myself with spiritual-sounding mitigating circumstances that would have made me appear holy. I have to read for my Hermeneutics class. (Would you really want me to misinterpret the Scriptures and lead people astray in my future pastoral ministry?!?) I have to work on summarizing the books I’m researching for the Acts 29 church replanting curriculum that my church is developing. (Would you have me shirk my responsibilities, which undoubtedly would destroy hundreds of church plants around the world?!?) I just really need to spend some time in the Word, coming back from vacation with my family. (Would you value a building’s aesthetics over my personal spiritual health?!?)

And then there’s even Scripture. Acts 6:2&4 “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables…But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Right? I mean, let the others paint the sanctuary. I’m in seminary; I have to study.

The simple truth is this: If you’re excusing yourself from service by claiming what the apostles claimed, you had better be doing what the apostles did. Apostle-in-training doesn’t cut it. Because if you aren’t among the elders, your job in the church is not the ministry of the word and prayer. Your job is serving in whatever way you have to so your pastor doesn’t have to be standing on the scaffolding with a paint brush in one hand and a commentary in the other. And if we’re being realistic, dodging the dirtywork probably isn’t leading you to spend that time on your knees begging God to weave His grace within the people you share community with.

I don’t have the spiritual gift of painting. But I’ll paint. A half dozen on Sunday morning don’t have the spiritual gift of changing diapers. But they’ll be right there serving in the nursery. I wonder if sometimes we mistreat the idea of “spiritual gifting” to excuse ourselves from doing things we are simply too lazy or too terrified to do.

Following Christ means death to self. I think that’s easy to get on the macro level. If some crazed shooter picks Crossing Church to show up to some Sunday morning and my choice becomes deny or die, I’m pretty sure I know which one I’m choosing. That’s not a heroic thing to say; it’s the gut-level response of every Christian. When death equals heaven, your priorities about survival get a little redefined.

And yet, when death to self does not actually mean a real, call-the-mortician kind of death but rather “inconvenience” or “discomfort,” that’s when the choice becomes hard. When the stakes are not so high, my defenses are lowered and the idol of self-protection and self-worship seizes my soul. Eve wouldn’t have worshipped Satan, but when the stakes were lowered and she was blind to the reality of what was going on in her heart she was entirely willing to eat a piece of fruit.

I’m not entirely sure how to wrap this up. Somehow I got from painting to martyrdom to the fall of mankind. I guess my point is this. To my friends who are studying to be pastors, we’ve got to earn our stripes. If we are to be given much, we must first be faithful with little.

Embracing the Awful Past

I posted a link to this video on facebook a few weeks ago. If you haven’t seen it, please take 4 minutes to watch it before reading further. I would embed it, but I can’t figure out how to do that from Vimeo to here. I feel a little hypocritical asking you to do this, as I’m usually the guy who won’t click on the link and just try to figure it out from the context. That particular movie from Sojourn Community Church has stuck with me in a powerful way over the weeks since I first saw it. And I’ve been asking myself again and again, “What’s the draw? What gives this little 4 minute video staying power that all the hundreds of other Christian videos I’ve seen do not have?”

People embracing the awful past gives it staying power. It’s one thing for individuals to talk in vague generalities about how “I was a sinner and then Christ saved me.” And I don’t want to minimize the importance of that. But it’s another thing for individuals to talk in the specifics of how they acted out and expressed the war between them and God in their lives. In a land where everybody’s a former rebel, it’s easy to talk about being a former rebel. It’s a lot harder to talk about the war crimes we committed before laying down our arms.

The only way someone can flip the pages of a notebook reading “I was close to leaving my wife for another woman” is if he is absolutely convinced that his sin no longer defines him. The only way a woman can have “anti-God bisexual adulteress” broadcast throughout the church is if she understands that who she now is in Christ crushes the reality of who she once was.

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation….” Paul wrote that. He would know. Never do we see Paul do anything other than embrace his own awful past. Not only embrace, but publish. Paul is the biggest proclaimer of who he was before Christ in the Scriptures. The past was not a threat to him; it was proof of the redefining power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God Inspired the Little Clauses

Memories aren’t usually made on airplanes. They’re made in cars moving at just a fraction of the speed of the contrail-billowing jets above them as the desert sands and wavy rows of corn and odd tourist destinations and memorable hole-in-the-wall restaurants are driven past or frequented with a last-second decision and a high speed turn.

Life transformation doesn’t usually happen during a few late night guilt-driven minutes given to skating across a chapter chunk of God’s Word. God inspired the little clauses; and it’s usually the little clauses that open up new and unexplored ways of thinking upon God and His gospel. Like the remembrances of a cross-country road trip, spiritual memories are made by the detours of diligent study, not by jetting far above the trenches of nouns and verbs and prepositions.

Look at what I mean:

Colossians 2:2-3 …that [they may attain] to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (NASB)

The end result is wealth. That’s what Paul prays we might attain. How do we get the wealth? By having an assurance of understanding. What is the wealth? Paul says that having an assurance of understanding results in a true knowledge of the mystery of Jesus Christ, and that in Him are hidden treasures of wisdom and treasures of knowledge. Which means that the wealth we receive by having a full assurance is a greater understanding of the person and work of Christ. More succinctly, it means that we are not assured by circumstances or blessings; we’re assured by our understanding of the mystery of the atonement.

Practically? Practically this means that when there is not a confidence, a full assurance, the solution is to run to and study the empty cross and the empty tomb. It means that understanding and knowledge about the work of Christ is both the result and the cause of assurance. We gain assurance by understanding, and by having assurance we gain an even greater understanding.

Philemon 6 …and I pray that the sharing (NASB: fellowship) of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. (ESV)

One of the things that grieves me most inside the church is when people believe that hearing a sermon quenches all their spiritual needs. If you’re showing up halfway into the service in time to catch the sermon and then running out the back door immediately after the service ends, you’re depriving yourself of something vital to your sanctification. You’re loading up on Vitamin D and getting no Vitamin C.

Paul prays that the sharing (and we know from the NASB translation that he’s thinking Christian-to-Christian here, not evangelism) of their faith might become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ Jesus. That is to say, if we are to understand the depths and heights of the riches that God has given us, we must have Bible-centered fellowship. Not football-centered fellowship. Bible-centered fellowship. Our conversations, our fellowship of faith, can produce a greater devotion to the Lord because our words are effective for stirring spiritual affection in each other. Not only that, but the valuing of Christ Jesus is wrapped up in our zeal to fellowship, for what has been produced in us by Christ Jesus is in us for the sake of Christ.

There are times to airplane through the text. One of the most profitable things I’ve done in the last year was to sit and read the entire book of Romans cover to cover. It took me an hour and a half. And I walked away marveling over the great drama that is redemption, and over the heart-rending truth that I can never merit anything but wrath and yet the Lord God Himself has adopted me as a child.

But oftentimes my protestations that I’m reading quickly to “gain a better understanding of the big picture” is nothing more than a spiritual-sounding glossy paint job covering up an ugly hearted laziness towards studying. Brothers, sisters, if you’re reading larger portions of the text, your reading must be just as intentional as if you were sitting next to a ream of paper and a bible dictionary prepared to do battle through diagraming and defining.

If we are to be godly, we must be intentional. We are sinful people, and we do not grow holy by accident. May we pray that we might know God better. And then may we be diligent to use the means He has given us to make it happen, knowing that the Lord blesses those who earnestly seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)