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.
When God at first made man
Having a glass of blessings standing by
Let us (he said) pour on him all we can
Let the world’s riches, which dispensed lie
Contract into a span
But what the Godhead knew
That Adam yet had sight to ascertain
For all the wisdom that he was imbued
There was still left a dark, unhappy stain
For he was one, not two
Amidst the grand review
As all the beasts were made to walk a span
Then Adam felt what God already knew
That lonely virtue did not fit the man
Though all his thoughts be true
And as man felt his need
Resounding loud and deep within his soul
The first few wisps of supernatural sleep
Spoke of provision that would make him whole
A joy to touch him deep
At sight it became plain
As Adam first spied she of fairer face
That spans of blessing often bear a name
And there beneath the canopies of grace
Perfection knew no shame
And though they rent to dust
Every goodness save for God alone
An image still was placed within their trust
A shadow of the love that would atone
And make the unjust just
And we in weakness
Through generations ever passing on
Seek to trace what renders angels speechless
The gospel of our Savior, Heaven’s Son
Who as His bride would claim us
It is of this delight
The present joys would dare anticipate
As bride and groom employ to give us sight
Of our eternal, ever happy fate
And futures ever bright
For the Occasion of Peter and Vanessa Bugbee’s Wedding
June 16th, 2012
by George Herbert & Nate Brooks
I stumbled across a folder entitled “Prayer” on my computer today. I didn’t remember creating it, and I don’t remember the few moments spent writing the solitary document that made up the folder’s entire contents. I am no great penner of prayers like those faithful men whose words appear in the Valley of Vision. But it is an encouragement to see answers in the present to forgotten prayers in the past. That God answers even the prayers I forget makes me come before him more.
I cannot begin but by thanking you, and not for the circumstances you have brought to pass alone, but for your person and work that stands far above every wave of shifting happiness or sorrow. The strength and value of a rock, a refuge, a bulwark is measured by the forces it can repel without suffering harm. You are the bulwark never failing, the refuge unbreakable, the rock immovable. Beyond this you are my bulwark, my rock, my refuge. You who by all rights ought to be my enemy for good and just cause have not laid down your arms but struck another and considered the strike against me. Mercy in the highest degree you have shown: mercy to ransom, mercy to justify, mercy to qualify to stand before you as a son, prodigal though I am.
As I look inward, Lord, I see insufficiency and weakness, timidity and smallness of soul. And yet I also see courage and strength, qualification to be used and faith. These are of your doing, grown in me through the regenerating and sanctifying work of the Spirit of Christ. Father, thank you for growing in me a tenderness of conscience to see sin. Thank you for the courage to pursue —— ——— to ask forgiveness even when he did not perceive offense, though I knew the motives of my heart were impure and my words matched the suit of their origin. Even as I feel the tentacles of smug satisfaction over the fact that I would recognize and repent of sin which so many others would brush off encircle my heart I pray you would protect me. Please do not allow the good you are growing in me grow what is evil, a pride that would undo me. And not because it would undo me in the eyes of others, though that would grieve me for bringing disrepute upon the gospel. I pray you would keep me from sin because it is against your face. Against you and you only have I sinned. Restrain me as you restrained Abimelech before Sarah, not to allow sin.
In the name of your Son, Jesus Christ,
A couple of weeks ago this blog turned five years old. It began the afternoon of October 1st, 2006 as I sat on our tired war-horse of a couch in Oak Manor, Dorm #5. Blogging was in full swing, and twitter was a word used to describe the kinds of conversations that junior high girls had over lunch. My world consisted of attending class, driving the Oak Manor shuttle bus, and getting involved in something called the Student Life Department. I wanted to be a lawyer, classes like Constitutional Law stoking my desire to work for IJM in rescuing the oppressed from the sex-trafficking industry, slavery, and other forms of illegal intimidation around the world.
I now am sitting on another couch, this one a rather new espresso colored faux leather model. This room is Carver 416, nicknamed “The Slaughterhouse” by the RAs, as students who enter might never return so the joke goes. I now am the junior member of the senior staff for a different Student Life department, but surrounded by old friends and new friends who share the same passion and direction. My world still revolves around taking classes, not for law but for vocational ministry, the one occupation I said I would never pursue.
I can see by comparing my own freshly published posts to those posted five years ago a radical transformation of who I am. The Lord has taken passion and directed it, taken outspokenness and polished it. By grace, he will continue to do so. In the last five years I’ve gained a life direction, and have been amazed at the paths the Lord has brought me on to get me here.
One thing I’ve never done on this blog is explain the name. Indeed, finding a good name for this blog proved to be much harder than I thought it would be. Like a tattoo, you’d better be good and sure that the name will reflect who you are in five years, ten years, twenty years, as it does when you first apply it. “Innocence Restored” is half of a line from Keith and Krysten Getty’s song, Every Promise Of Your Word. They write,
When I stumble and I sin, condemnation pressing in,
I will stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word.
You are faithful to forgive that in freedom I might live,
So I stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word.
Guilt to innocence restored,
You remember sins no more—
So I’ll stand on ev’ry promise of Your Word.
I do not know how long I’ll write here at this site. I have no intention of giving it up anytime soon, though the frequency always seems to ebb and flow as the Lord brings different ministries and responsibilities into my life. But one thing I know will be as true of me when I am old and grey as when I first began writing at this site. I have gone from guilt to innocence. And this is a statement that makes absolutely no sense. The guilty cannot become innocent yet again, for innocent is not a quality that can be measured by overwhelming generalities like being generous or truthful. A man may be truthful and have lied in the past. But no one could ever be innocent having been guilty in the past.
Except for the appearing of Jesus Christ, God become man to purchase back sinners to himself. It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.
It is humiliating to have my identity be Jesus Christ. I am not Jesus. I am Nate Brooks of Atascadero, California; not Jesus of Nazareth. Nate Brooks won the AWANA clubber of the year award at the C&M Alliance church in Elma, Washington in the 3rd grade. Jesus of Nazareth did not. Nate Brooks’ first theology book was RC Sproul’s Chosen By God, picked up and devoured in the 10th grade. Jesus of Nazareth’s was not. Nate Brooks was named Most Inspirational Player on his high school basketball team, Jesus of Nazareth was not. Nate Brooks graduated as valedictorian of his high school. Jesus of Nazareth did not.
Nate Brooks stayed up late into the night with his friend, watching the deepening shadows of the evening describe yet again the deepening clouds of depression begin to eclipse the wonders of the gospel in his affections. Jesus of Nazareth did not. Nate Brooks cut his teeth in preaching before a crowd of rehabilitating drug addicts, listening to the most off-key praises sung to the Lord you could ever imagine, but with a gusto that brought tears to his eyes. Jesus of Nazareth did not preach there. Nate Brooks served alongside a very faithful pastor for a year, teaching the youth group what it means to be wise in a very unwise world. Jesus of Nazareth did not do this either. And Nate Brooks is in seminary, writes a blog and gets good grades. Jesus of Nazareth scores a zero yet again.
Jesus of Nazareth is a man who lived and died 2000 years ago in a place of the world I’ve never been and will probably never visit. His life bears very little resemblance to mine. I drive, He walked. My days are spent with books and conversation, his were filled with stonecutting. I’ve driven over the western part of the United States. He never ventured more than a 100 miles from the place of his birth. And most strikingly I’ve never even received a speeding ticket. He was crucified as an insurrectionist.
It is humiliating to have my identity be Jesus Christ. Seen through the eyes of unbelief, my life is virtuous. It’s moral. There are no glaring weaknesses or dark stains to hide. But seen through the eyes of true understanding I’ve left a wasteland in my path. I wreak destruction upon the universe, and if I was the only one upon the earth, it would groan for release from me. Even after I accepted Jesus Christ ten years ago, even after my heart has been regenerated and I have been given the desires to do what is right every footfall sounds insufficiency.
This is why I have been bought with a price. And that price was not something trifling like silver or gold, the metals that men give to those they care most about, and the metals that men fight and kill each other over. A price of gold or silver would have been insufficient. “You were ransomed” says Peter, “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). And how does this reshuffle my identity? “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Either Jesus Christ is my entire identity, or I am hopeless. My only hope lies in having an intercessor, a man who can stand before the great Judge and say “Count my life, not his.” This is humiliating. Absolutely humiliating. The kingdom of God is home to no self-made man. It is home to men and women who have renounced their own identities, their own claim to having anything within them or done by them to qualify themselves to stand before the bench and be sentenced to anything other than death. Jesus Christ is our identity or we are undone.
1. No ministry position will ever satisfy. Three days ago I was named Resident Director of Carver Hall at Boyce College, the undergraduate program of Southern Seminary. Being an RD is something I have pursued for several years, knowing how much the Lord has shaped who I am by the faithfulness of my own RDs at The Master’s College. Your passions reflect what and who has shaped you. And yet, despite the joy and thanksgiving for being entrusted with this position, it does not satisfy. I have gained what I have striven for, and discovered through experience what I already knew to be true: Nothing other than Christ will satisfy. If I expect to find my joy and happiness in a position where I am able to mediate Christ rather than Christ himself I may taste faint echos of presumed blessing, but those presumed blessings will be the ghost-like wisps of self-delusion. RA, RD, Dean, Pastor. It does not matter. Man. Boyfriend. Husband. Father. Grandfather. It does not matter. If I try to find my identity and joy in anything other than the wonder of salvation, then I will never find what I’m looking for. Or worse I might think I have, only to discover at some sad moment in the future that my life was spent on the triviality that is myself.
2. Hotel employees can easily recreate everything that you do inside your room. Just trust me on that one. I’ve seen multiple incidents in the past three months that would curl your toes, sicken your stomach, and incite your rage. None of these ordinary people thought about the witnesses to what they were doing or about to do. Not just divine witnesses, but human as well. I can give you names, days, and times of porn watchers, adulterers, drug users, and spouse abusers. I’m just the face that checked you into your hotel. But if I knew you were a pastor and you came down to pay for that fifteen minute long movie in cash, let’s just say your secret wouldn’t be safe with me for the sake of the kingdom of God. Maybe we’re most tempted when we travel because there is the illusion of anonymity. I can tell you that just isn’t true.
3. All authentic ministry begins with servanthood.
4. Servanthood is most simply defined as “You’re in it for them.” Not for what you can gain from the exchange, not for status or reputation or a surge of dopamine, but for their benefit. Be it the awkward pursuit for the sake of better brotherhood, the ease of hard-earned camaraderie, or the stunned silence of confrontation, it is all for their sake, not your own. This is what it means to consider others better than yourself. It’s easy to read; it’s hard to live.
Nighttime was hell, a hell I put myself through. I laid awake, terrified at the prospect that I might not know God. I had asked him into my heart around my fourth birthday. But I couldn’t remember that moment, and it didn’t seem to provide the kind of assurance my soul craved. Time and again I would pray the sinner’s prayer, hoping against hope that maybe this time it would mollify the raging abyss in my soul which consumed my mind night after night. And time and again these words failed me, no matter how I changed the wording in hopes that I’d get the formula right once and for all. Marked by frequent panic attacks and terror, sleep was often long in coming. Many nights my parents stayed up holding their little boy’s hand, leading me in prayer, walking through the alphabet and thinking of the attributes of God that begin with each letter. What they could not know was the ever-growing body of sin that I refused to confess which burned hot in my heart and fed the wide-eyed terror that gripped my heart.
I knew that they loved me unconditionally. But I refused to confess, choosing to endure a dank, concrete self-made prison cell of misery rather than feel the green grass of freedom underneath my feet. Why? Reputation. I was the pastor’s son. I was the good Christian boy, the one who always played by the rules. I had a pile of AWANA awards which declared me so. Good pastors’ sons don’t swear. They don’t lie to their parents by inventing evangelistic conversations with other kids in order to appear more holy and righteous. And they certainly don’t worry about whether they’re saved or not. Maybe some pastor’s kids would sin that way. But I certainly did not.
And so I lived, shooting down the feelings of condemnation with the ammunition of obedience. I read in the Scriptures that we were to get baptized. So I was baptized on the Sunday nearest my 13th birthday. I came to understand that we were to confess our sin. So I confessed everything I could possibly think of to God and to my parents, except a few particular particularly reputation-damaging sins. I read that we are to read the Bible, so I read the Bible and felt condemned for my lack of interest in it and understanding of it. But I read it.
If you had asked me a question about the gospel, I would have given you knockout answers for them all. How are we saved? Through grace alone by faith alone. Atonement? My sins transferred to Jesus and his righteousness to me. Election? In love God predestined before the foundation of the world. And yet there was no gospel in my heart. Proverbs 8:13 reads, “The fear of Yahweh is the hatred of evil.” I hated evil, but I hated it because of what it did to me and the terrors it wrought upon my heart. Ever the scorecard hung before me, mocking me with its tally of condemnation. Yet I was convinced that this was the good and happy Christian life. This was blessing. Having become so accustomed to guilt and accusation, and being so sure that my outward obedience proved that there was an inward heart reality, I fully believed an absolute delusion of what the kindness of God looked and felt like. He fell upon my soul with condemnation, and I called it his favor.
Being convinced that I was a believer, I did not go seeking salvation. Ray and Kathy were invited over for dinner one fall night, which was not a rare occurrence in our household. As we all pushed forward our empty plates and the conversation turned to more serious concerns, Kathy begin to share her worries about the legitimacy of her salvation. “Pastor Jim, when I became a believer all I prayed was ‘Lord Jesus, I’ve tried everything else. I’ll try you.’ Sometimes I worry because there was no expression of confession or repentance.” And my Dad leaned across the table and said, “Kathy, do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength?” “Yes, Pastor Jim.” “And has there been an observable change in your life and heart since then?” “Yes.” “Kathy, that’s the mark of a believer.” And then he said the line that changed it all for me: “It’s not the prayer that saves you, it’s Christ that saves you.”
That second I felt an almost physical snap inside me. Suddenly it all made sense as the scattered puzzle pieces of condemnation and works and prayers of repentance and terror rushed into place. No prayer would ever save. But Christ does.
Nobody could have ever predicted the stroke which would unmask my delusion. It was the entirely unintentional byproduct of a conversation that had nothing to do with me in the minds of everyone sitting around the table. If you had a friend deluded about his state of grace, that would not have been the conversation you would have wanted him to be apart of in hopes he would come to see his delusion. But it was for me. I thought I was saved and was not seeking salvation. But of far more importance, God was seeking me.
There was no fresh expression of repentance. There was no confession of sins. But where once there was blindness now there was sight. All of the terror and the doubts and the fear melted away in an instant as I came to love what before I had feared. “But as for me, the nearness of my God is my good,” says the Psalmist. Where once the presence of God was a terrifying thing, now it was indeed my good.
It has taken a great deal of time for me to come to understand the Lord’s work in drawing me to himself. For years I’ve believed that my conversion at three was authentic and my experience at fourteen was a moment of fresh discovery of what grace and love truly are. Inside the pages of Jonathan Edwards I discovered a doctrine that explains my own experiences, a doctrine called preparationism. Falling under God’s conviction and terror is not the same as loving him. Such conviction and terror is preparation, as man must first come to see his state of condemnation before knowing his desperate need of grace. For some the period of preparation may be short. For others like myself, it may be marked by long years of darkness before the Light is understood and embraced. True religion is love to God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Where there is not love, there is no true grace.
It is my hope that reading this proves to be an encouragement and not a source of doubt. I understand how it could easily shake what has no reason to be shaken. But see in me how God was powerful to save even when I thought I was already indeed saved. I was not seeking him, thinking that I had already gained him. No matter how deep our delusions, Jesus Christ saves. No wonder we are commanded to love him with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.