Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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Great Reality Inspires Great Writing

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 8:02pm

I spoke recently to a gathering of writers. The time allotted was short, so I made only one point. But this one point is, I believe, fundamental and universal for all authentic writing. By authentic, I mean writing that sincerely intends to carry the mind and heart of the writer, and that aims to communicate some reality that is more than mere self-expression — even if it is fiction or a playful note for your children.

There are huge assumptions behind that definition and exaltation of authenticity. One is that there is such a thing as objective reality beyond my self-expression. You may be so mentally and emotionally healthy that this seems obvious to you. But the modern world is not so healthy. It has proven to be fertile soil for the notion that we create our own reality.

What Ails Our World

For example, in the 1992 Supreme Court decision for Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In other words, to be free, we must be liberated from the constraints of reality. The best way to attempt that liberation is to redefine reality as whatever I say it is. Today’s fruit of that view of reality would perhaps best be expressed by the notion that a child not only can define his own gender, but also, as recent letters to the London Times suggest, choose to be a panda, a dog, or a mermaid — things at which we might have once laughed, but now must weep.

This means that thousands of people write with no sense of obligation that their writing should not only carry their true thoughts and feelings, but also communicate a reality that is more than their self-expression. I regard such writing as inauthentic. It may be a real expression of what is in the writer, but it is not real as a communication of a reality greater than mere preference.

Authenticity’s True Path

Another of my assumptions is that the reason there is such a thing as reality beyond my self-expression is that God exists. If God exists, then the most important reality in the universe is outside of me. If he created the world, and works in it, then his works and ways are of great objective importance. What he is, what he has done, and what he has said is more important than what I think or feel.

Another assumption is that God has spoken. The Bible is his true revelation about himself and his ways and his thoughts. Therefore, the most reliable way to write authentically is to be immersed in the reality that the Bible communicates. It is possible to see reality in God’s book of nature, but it is more reliable to read that book with the guidance of the Book that is designed to illuminate nature with inspired truth.

Those are some of the assumptions behind the one point that I made at the writers’ gathering.

How to Read, How to Write

So what was the point? Let me get to it by taking you with me on a train of thought emerging over the last three years. What I have been focused on mainly is how to draw out, from the writings of the Bible, the reality that the authors are trying to communicate. And you can see immediately that all we have to do is flip this process of thinking around to discover how to put reality into writing — not just get meaning out.

One of the main emphases of my thinking and writing over the last three years has been that the ultimate goal of reading the Bible is not to discover grammatical and syntactical structures. It’s not to discover definitions of words, or theological categories, or inter-canonical themes of biblical theology. All of those are means, not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is through the grammar, and through the syntax, and through the words, categories, and themes, to see and savor, and then show the reality the authors are trying to communicate.

Reading’s Ultimate Goal

To see truly and to savor duly and to show to the world the reality the authors are trying to communicate — that is the ultimate goal of reading God’s word. If we see the reality and do not savor it according to its worth — feeling its horror if it’s horrible, feeling its beauty if it’s beautiful — then we have not attained the purpose for which the Bible was written.

The aim is to see and savor and show

  • the reality of God,
  • the reality of Christ,
  • the reality of the Holy Spirit,
  • and the incarnation,
  • and what happened on the cross in the atonement,
  • and the work of the Holy Spirit in the human soul,
  • and the reality of sin, and hell, and heaven,
  • and the reality of faith and hope and love,
  • and the power it takes to raise a person from spiritual death and create these things.

The ultimate goal of reading the Bible is to see and savor and show the reality the authors are trying to communicate.

One Point for Writers

This means, then, if you flip the process around, that the aim of writing is to communicate reality so that it can be seen and savored and shown by those who read what you write. This implies many things, but here is the one I gave to the writers: See truly and savor duly the reality you intend to show through writing. This was my one point.

Solomon Makes the Point

To make this point, I let Solomon and John Owen speak for me. First, one of the Proverbs, from Solomon:

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
   bind them around your neck;
   write them on the tablet of your heart. (Proverbs 3:3)

In other words, before you write about steadfast love and faithfulness on paper, or on the screen, write them on your heart. In writing them on your heart, you are making the reality clear to yourself. In writing them on your heart, you are making the reality felt in yourself. Great writing is about great reality — clearly seen and greatly felt. Don’t write it on your screen until you have written it on your heart.

John Owen Makes the Point

Now, I want to let John Owen have the last word. He’s talking about the relationship between reality as we grasp it in our minds and hearts, on the one hand, and the effort to communicate it to others, on the other hand. Here’s what he says, with the repeated main point in italics:

[All-important is] a diligent endeavor to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts, that we may not contend for notions, but that we have a practical acquaintance within our own souls. When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth — when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us — when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts — when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for — then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men. (John Owen, Works, XII, 52)

“The sense of the thing” — I love that phrase. Let it sink in. A huge amount of my time and effort over the last fifty years has been spent trying to get a great “sense of the thing” before I say anything publicly.

Great Reality Fuels Great Writing

This is, I think, what made John Owen a great writer — even though stylistically he is for many inaccessible, which is another issue for another day. But sixteen volumes of his work would not be in print 400 years after his birth if there were no greatness here. And I think his greatness lay in this: Great writing is about great reality — clearly seen, and greatly felt.

One last quote from Owen — he said this about preaching, but it applies to writing. I will substitute the word “write” and “article” where he says “preach” and “sermon.”

A man [writes] that [article] only well unto others which [writes] itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savory unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. (Works, XVI, 76, emphasis added)

So, with Solomon and John Owen, I close with my one point for writers: See truly and savor duly the reality you intend to show through writing.

Husbands, Lead by Going Low

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 1:00pm

A man’s call to lead in the home is a summons to stoop low and bear the burden of responsibility for his family.

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Only Love Prevents Adultery: Letter to a Would-Be Adulteress

Mon, 09/18/2017 - 10:01am

Dear Friend,

Although we haven’t met, I know at least one thing about you. I know you didn’t enter your marriage thinking, “How can I ruin this? How can I bring pain to this man, and our families, and our friends?” You began your marriage hoping it would become a life-long love story, filled with deep joy and satisfaction. And yet here you are today, thinking about things you never thought possible.

How Did I Get Here?

Adultery often begins in your imagination. You cultivate an emotional affair and then fantasize about the sexual possibilities. All of this goes uninterrupted by godly repentance.

Soon you begin lusting after the attention of another man. Then you find yourself flirting with him, developing an emotional support structure with him.

We always have a higher tolerance for our own hidden sins, but none of us can caress a secret world of lust and fantasy without defiling our soul (Mark 7:23). Ultimately, adultery, like all sin, is a heart issue. This is where it all begins.

Are you disappointed in your husband? His earning power, his time-consuming hobbies, his spiritual malaise, his less-than-thrilling times of intimacy with you? Maybe you feel his expectations of you are too high. Or maybe you’re tired of not feeling seen or heard and you hunger for a man to pay attention to you. Is there growing within you a longing to be free from the inevitable confinements of this lifetime promise?

Adultery Brings Misery

The Bible teaches that marriage is a sacred bond, to be honored by all (Hebrews 13:4). Adultery takes the one-flesh relationship and smashes it with the hammer of reckless selfishness.

One-fleshness is more than sex, and sex is more than a mere physical release that two people experience together. Sex is a profound human connection that belongs only in marriage. God says you and your husband are one, and that he created that union (Matthew 19:6). Sexual intimacy is a precious gift that is to be treated with tenderness and awe. Through it you expose not only your body, but your very soul. And over-exposure will damage you in ways that are not discernible in the moment of passion.

Adultery brings misery at so many levels. It brings the adulterer shame. It introduces betrayal into your legacy. It shows your children that your personal pleasure is more important than their security. It brings sorrow to your Christian community.

God takes sexual sins very seriously. Adultery without repentance damns the soul (1 Corinthians 6:9–10: Galatians 5:19–21). When Jesus speaks of sexual sins in Matthew 5:27–30, he uses strong language — gouge out your eye and cut off your hand. In other words, be willing to endure pain and loss rather than engage in sexual sin. Marriage must be an unrelenting commitment to an imperfect person. That commitment means a willingness to sometimes be unhappy.

Adultery is a mature sin, a deliberate sin. You may “fall in love,” but you walk yourself into bed with that man. In all our years of ministry, I have never had one woman come to me and say, “I am so happy over this affair. It’s even better than I imagined!” And so as an older woman, I have one word for you: Don’t! Don’t go there. Don’t go there in your mind. Don’t go there in your heart. Don’t go there with your body.

Is There Hope to Renew My Marriage?

Instead, ask God to help you be zealous over your heart, “for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). Guard your spirit. Cherish the everlasting honor that comes from saying no to momentary impulses (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). Run from difficult or tempting situations. Remember that your body is the very temple of the Holy Spirit whom God has given you at great cost to himself (I Corinthians 6:18–20).

Think of the blessings of marriage. You belong somewhere and with someone. Someone has chosen you and you have had the chance to choose someone for yourself. You will write your own shared history to leave as your legacy. What kind of legacy do you want to leave?

The question for each one of us should never be, “How far can I go with a relationship — either in fantasy or reality — before it becomes a sin?” Rather, let’s ask, “How can I go so deep with Jesus Christ that sexual purity is the glad outworking of my joyful satisfaction in him?” The best guard against adultery is a deep love and satisfaction in Jesus Christ alone. The soul that is drinking deeply from his river of delights (Psalm 36:8) is not going to thirst for false joys.

The way to drink deeply from Jesus is through repentance and faith. In repentance you turn away from all sin and turn toward him. What does this turning away look like? Well, where are you being tempted? Maybe you need to give up your favorite TV show, where you keep imagining that you are the one in that handsome actor’s arms. Perhaps it is your reading material that sends you into someone else’s bed. What about your interaction on social media? Do you need to get off certain sites? Or you may even need to change your job if a relationship there is tempting you with sexual sin.

Then as you turn away from your sin, turn toward Jesus. Seek him in the Scriptures and through prayer. In faith, take those temptations and cast them onto Christ. Let him carry your burden away. He will give you a bright new hope for the future. He is the one who said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

And by God’s grace you will be able to answer him with renewed intent, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart” (Psalm 40:8). May God bless you and keep you!

Whites Only? A Birmingham Letter for Wittenburg’s Door

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 8:03pm

Great, another art project.

My restless peers fought over the red, purple, and green crayons to color in Joseph’s coat, and the yellow crayon to enliven the sun. I counted the minutes until I could leave.

During my youth Sunday school days, I remember noticing that the kids in my youth group rarely colored in the people. Eve’s apple, Noah’s animals, and Moses’s parting sea were all vibrant with color, but the people remained as white as the paper.

No one ever fought over the black, brown, or tan crayons.

Whites Only?

Historically adults have not fought over the brown crayons either, at least in the West. Jesus has had flowing brown hair, sky blue eyes, and white skin for centuries. But while the assumption seems harmless in majority culture, the father of lies has devastated inner-city minorities with this little, white lie.

You can hear Satan’s hiss in a friend’s comment to me recently, from one black man to another, “Christianity is a white man’s religion.” His warning was clear to anyone with cultural sensitivities: Don’t sell out.

To follow the Jewish Messiah into a gospel-preaching community — where most of the brothers and sisters were white — was to relinquish the only possession that white imperialism hadn’t taken yet: my soul.

And my friend is not alone.

The father of lies devours minority souls, barring them from the gospel of grace and eternal life, simply by whispering, “Christianity isn’t for you. Whites only.”

When Christianity is whitewashed, when the church becomes associated with suburban country clubs, when our celebrated leaders and theologians throughout time have almost exclusively white faces, when Hollywood confirms that Noah looked like Russell Crowe and Moses like Christian Bale, when Jesus is seen as lead candidate for a political party, when the Father is the old white man in the sky who blesses white faces behind white picket fences, minority souls close their ears to the gospel and die in their sins.

This parasite, this unchallenged assumption causes many minorities to throw the baby born in Bethlehem out with the murky bathwater of European colonialism. And I fear that many evangelical churches unintentionally give minorities the impression that being a Christian entails the cross of Jesus Christ plus assimilation into white culture.

Unreached Within Reach

I am not at all interested in needlessly adding to white guilt. I’ve sat down with white brothers and sisters who fear God and love their cities. They champion diversity. They want to reach their neighbors. They are honorable people who feel shame because they are white in a predominantly white congregation. I do not seek to add to their angst.

That said, black souls are being lost without ever hearing the biblical gospel. Many from my childhood have never been confronted with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Even if they grew up in Grandma’s church, they most likely heard some form of “the prosperity gospel” — which is no gospel at all. I have talked with several black men who, since coming to faith, marvel in horror at how devoid of the gospel their neighborhoods are. Black communities starve theologically, perishing down the street from a healthy and fruitful gathering of saints.

And when some do wander in, many struggle with their identity in this community. They struggle to fit into the typical Hillsong-and-Hymnal liturgy, majority-culture Christianese, and high academia often required for expositional listening. If they join the church, they struggle with not seeing many people that look like them in the pews or the pulpit. They struggle with the fact that they have to leave their neighborhood and culture behind to meet up with their small group.

So, what can be done? Older, wiser men will likely have more to say. The following are simply considerations I hope will advance an important conversation in your church.

To Those in the Pew

Pew ministry is vital in the trend towards diversity. Pastors are given to the body to equip you for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Here are two things, among many, to consider:

1. Die to preferences for cultural exclusivity.

It saddens me to hear how much resistance there has been to the slightest alteration with “tradition.” The reasoning goes like this: “If they” — the others among them who would feel loved by some cultural differences added to the service — “truly loved Jesus, they wouldn’t care about the cultural distinctions.” Well, lost minorities do care about that more than Christ — they’re lost. And you can love your saved brothers and sisters by meeting them on their side of the field from time to time.

Furthermore, this reasoning seems all too convenient coming from the Christian with unflinching commitments to, well, their own cultural preferences. We, unlike other religions, have a gospel that celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity. It is our joy, then, to meet the lost where they are, becoming all things to all people so that we might save some to share in our blessing (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).

This does not mean that a local church can have no cultural distinction. It means that they have no exclusive cultural distinctions.

2. Diversify your dinner table.

You may never have an opportunity to preach a sermon on racial reconciliation, but you can invite people over for dinner. Starve bigotry and prejudice over delicious, home-cooked meals. Weaponize spoons and forks, casseroles and (glorious) fried chicken legs, against racism and functional segregation. Invite someone who looks different than you over for dinner.

This will be uncomfortable at times. But Christ hung uncomfortably on a tree, bearing the discomfort of God’s wrath, that you might imitate his love towards those who you don’t think will necessarily benefit you.

Share stories. Share perspectives. Glory in how God makes you the same — and different. Mobilize your dinner table in the cause for Christ.

To Pastors

Again, pastors, you are given to the body to equip your people for this kind of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Here are several things, among many, that you might consider:

1. Don’t dismiss social justice as “not a gospel issue.”

Many minorities have not had the luxury of ignoring social issues. Injustice has been the lion’s share of African-American history. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to fighting for civil rights and economic equality, ethical implications of the Christian gospel have never been mere abstractions.

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. represent many more minorities than majority culture might assume,

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues which the gospel has nothing to do with,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between bodies and souls, the sacred and the secular.

In an effort to preserve the pure gospel against liberal theologies, many Bible-believing churches abdicated gospel-love for their neighbor’s social needs by standing against the Civil Rights movement — and lost many blacks as a result.

Social justice is not the gospel — but it is a result of the true gospel, and can be instrumental in directing souls to the true gospel. Jesus did not speak the second great commandment in vain. Paul did not draw in gospel ethics as a peripheral matter. Christians care about all suffering — including societal suffering. Especially when addressing societal suffering opens a doorway to share the only message that can prevent eternal suffering.

2. Diversify the liturgy.

I love hymns now — but I surely didn’t before I was saved.

What did thou even mean? Why were words not finish’d? Did Shakespeare write some of these? The use of archaic language made evangelical churches to me — in my unregenerate state — seem extra-white.

Every Sunday, I went from living in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air to stepping inside four walls of Downton Abbey. The transition was jarring. But they had the words of eternal life, they preached Christ crucified — where else could I go?

Now, it would be a crime to scrap the hymns. But just know that these precious songs use a strange tongue that can alienate the foreigner to the congregation. Diversify the music and explain some of the old hymns. I’m sure most will be helped by an explanation of what I’m actually raising when I raise mine Ebenezer. And furthermore, what an Ebenezer actually is.

Add some songs that might tempt even the Swedish Baptist to sway and clap.

3. Diversify leadership.

Qualified diversity in leadership lends itself to a healthy diverse church.

Although none of the elder qualifications have to do with skin color (for or against), having shepherds who all share the same mission — while contributing different backgrounds, perspectives, and culture — strengthens the church and casts heaven’s shadow upon earth.

This may not be possible for you in your setting, but as far as it is, seek it.

4. Tell stories and quote the preaching of saints from other cultures.

The church has been greatly benefitted by European theologians, but white faces have almost exclusively dominated what we consider authoritative and helpful. Even Augustine (who was African!) is paper-white on the front of my copy of Confessions. That the vast majority of evangelical Christians do not even know the names of orthodox pastors like Daniel Payne, Jupiter Hammon, Lemuel Haynes, and many others is unfortunate, to say the least.

Intentionally read works from other ethnicities and cultures, and sprinkle them throughout your preaching ministry to remind people that God has revealed himself to non-white thinkers, writers, and preachers.

5. Preach the ethnicity-filled text.

Pastors don’t need to make up original ideas to mention ethnicity. To preach from the Bible, you would have to go out of your way to never mention it.

The Bible is a book featuring what Western civilization would label as “minorities.” No one in the Bible was Caucasian. Nobody looked American. None remained untouched by a crayon.

According to Daniel Hays, in his excellent biblical theology, From Every People and Nation, the closest people to Caucasians were Indo-Europeans, who included groups like the Philistines — although they looked more like modern-day Greeks or Turks than Americans or Europeans. Identifying that the non-European figures in the Bible were, in fact, non-European, helps undermine the myth that Christianity is only for whites.

6. Preach the gospel intelligibly.

If the preaching is unintelligible to those without a college degree, it is not good preaching. The complexity of language should not be the barrier to heaven; a God-hating heart should be. The offensive person of Jesus Christ should be what the rebel dismisses, not a preacher who gets lost in abstractions.

Putting one’s preaching on the top shelf will ensure that only those who are already tall will be fed, while those dead in their sins will keep descending, uninterrupted, into hell. The plea is not for shallow preaching, but rather for piercing, substantive, winsome preaching that challenges, convicts, and comforts normal people.

7. Strive to make the local church local.

Aspire and pray that the demographics of your church might generally reflect the neighborhood it belongs to. Barring extreme cases, the local church should be made up of, well, local people. If you pastor a rural church in Iowa, you may be hard-pressed for much diversity — although diversity should still be a conviction the church embraces (and diversity is never merely racial).

The temptations for an inner-city church of commuters is that it can rally around one cultural expression of worship — not feeling any need to contextualize for the people in that area, and feeling little investment in the community where it gathers because no one actually lives there.

Jesus, King of the Nations

Jesus, the Son of Man, was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that people from France, Morocco, Ghana, Indonesia, and Albania — speaking Arabic, Swahili, and Mandarin — should all serve him. His multiethnic, multilingual kingdom, is an everlasting kingdom, one that racists, supremacists, and bigots shall not destroy (Daniel 7:13–14).

Therefore, he gives his followers a great charge: Go to the plains of Africa, scale the mountains of Asia, sail across the mighty Pacific, enter the Ecuadorian jungles, drive down the crowded Chinese streets, and make disciples of North Koreans, Somalians, and Venezuelans, baptizing the Cubans, Canadians, and Kenyans in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching Jamaicans, Latvians, and African Americans to observe all that he taught us. And behold, he will be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:18–20).

Lift up your gates, O racial barriers,
Be lifted up, O ancient doors of prejudice,
That the King of glory may come in!

Jesus Christ is the King of the nations. He calls many different people from many nations to share in his everlasting kingdom — not just whites only.

Did Adam and Eve Sin Before the Bite?

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 8:00pm

The ultimate sin in the garden was not eating the fruit. Adam and Eve lost their taste for God’s beauty before they reached for the tree.

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A.P.T.A.T.: A Strategy for Daily Bible Reading

Sun, 09/17/2017 - 1:00pm

Here are five practical steps to reading the Bible in God’s strength today.

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Sunday Morning Is Not About Me: The Joy of Self-Forgetfulness

Sat, 09/16/2017 - 8:02pm

The Psalms reverberate with calls to worship. Israel’s songwriters prod, provoke, invite, incite, call, and even cajole God’s people to praise.

  • “Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints” (Psalm 30:4).
  • “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord” (Psalm 95:1).
  • “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!” (Psalm 100:1).
  • “Praise the Lord, all nations!” (Psalm 117:1).
  • “Praise God in his sanctuary” (Psalm 150:1).

We’re not often told whether these many calls to worship spark a response. Usually, it’s simply left to us to respond (or not).

Worship for Joy

But Psalm 33 is different, and in a delightful way. It begins like many others, with an enthusiastic call to worship:

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright. Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts. (Psalm 33)

The psalmist aims to stir up worship that is loud (“shout”), joyful (“shout for joy”), God-focused (“shout for joy in the Lord”), and fresh (“sing to him a new song”). The people he calls to worship may be suffering, discouraged, brokenhearted, confused, or sad, but when they gather together before God, they shout for joy.

Miraculous Response

So far, this is all normal, but Psalm 33 has a distinctive feature. In these powerful 22 verses, we hear both call and response. In the last three verses, God’s people speak together as one. What the psalmist has hoped for, he now hears:

Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33:20–22)

Imagine these words spoken from the heart by the children you teach in Sunday school, the teens you disciple in youth group, the co-worker with whom you recently shared the gospel, the congregation you lead in singing. How happy the psalmist must be!

Looking for Greater Joy?

As one who longs for spiritual transformation in myself and others, I really want to know how God turns a call to worship (Psalm 33:1–3) into a response of genuine and joyful worship (Psalm 33:20–22). How does he form a people who will say, “Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name”?

The real treasure of this psalm is that it answers that question. It gives us reasons to worship — Psalm 33:4 begins with the word “because” — and these reasons are not about us; they’re about God. The psalmist feeds our minds and fires our hearts with the character of God:

  • God is a speaking Lord, whose words are perfectly upright and incredibly powerful (Psalm 33:4–9).
  • God is a sovereign Lord, who rules all the earth through all the ages (Psalm 33:10–12).
  • God is a seeing Lord, who observes everything about everyone, everywhere (Psalm 33:13–15).
  • Finally, and best of all, God is a saving Lord, who delivers from death (Psalm 33:16–19).

This radically God-centered approach turns mere listeners into worshipers. And it points to a profound irony in life. The way to become most happy and fulfilled is to think less about ourselves and more about God.

Our selfie-stick society moves in the opposite direction. And sadly, many professing Christians get this totally wrong. One popular television preacher, for instance, says, “To find happiness, quit focusing on what’s wrong with you and start focusing on what’s right with you.” No, start focusing on how big, and powerful, and just, and merciful, and wise, and good your God really is.

Our Selfie Problem

In his short book The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, Tim Keller identifies the problem:

Up until the twentieth century, traditional cultures (and this is still true of most cultures in the world) always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all the evil in the world. . . . Our belief today — and it is deeply rooted in everything — is that people misbehave for lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves.

The Bible breathes a different air, calling us away from the claustrophobia of self-obsession. In The Jesus Storybook Bible, Sally Lloyd-Jones writes, “The Bible isn’t mainly about me and what I should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.” The Bible pursues our joy by lifting our eyes to God.

We See More

That’s why Psalm 33 directs our weak and often failing attention to our Lord. And we, as God’s new-covenant people — living and worshiping after Christ has died and risen — can now see even more of him than the psalmist could.

Our speaking Lord has communicated climactically in the person of Jesus Christ, who is called “the Word.” Our sovereign Lord has, at the very center of all his plans, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his second coming. Our seeing Lord observes from the heavens, but also has come among us in the person of Jesus and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. We know, in a way the psalmist never could have known, how it is that God saves us — at the cost of his own precious Son.

As we see our Lord for who he is, as we look away from ourselves to gaze upon him again, we will find true, lasting joy and contentment. That is the gift and treasure of Psalm 33.

Your Letter to Your Future Spouse

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 8:00pm

I vividly remember the first time I saw the movie Titanic. The passionate love between Jack and Rose awakened something fierce in my little preteen heart. I thought little of marriage before that movie. Now it consumed my thoughts and dreams.

For my friends and me, riding off into the sunset with our respective Jack Dawsons became the ultimate goal in life. We quickly believed the lie that a committed, romantic relationship was all we needed to be okay. Marriage became a savior. As Rose said at the end of the movie, “There was a man named Jack Dawson, and he saved me — in every way a person can be saved.”

Though Titanic is now twenty years old, the same romance-as-savior theme is still present in our culture. But surprisingly, many churches don’t reject this lie. They Christianize it.

Marriage Idolatry

Youth leaders, aware of their teens’ lust for romance and sexual intimacy, are eager to steer students away from poor decisions, and rightly so. But instead of pointing to a present Christ as the promised prize in the fight against lust, far too many point to a future spouse. This strategy may succeed in preserving the virginity of young Christian teens, but the “think about your future spouse” approach misses the heart of the Bible’s message that Jesus alone can satisfy.

One specific manifestation of this is the practice of writing notes to a future spouse. There are dozens of Christian articles on how and why to write to a future husband or wife. Though many people believe in this practice and encourage it, it keeps our focus in the wrong place. It subtly (or overtly) puts our hope for happiness in someone other than Christ.

Undoubtedly, marriage is a treasured gift many Christians will receive. Instituted by God before the fall, and intended to showcase the beauty of the gospel, marriage ought to be highly regarded by God’s people. But marriage is no savior. It cannot rescue, redeem, or ultimately fulfill us. It has no final power to save us from our loneliness, emptiness, or purposelessness. Believing marriage can do the work of God himself is to serve an idol.

So, in the interests of putting marriage in its proper place, here are four reasons to set your hope in a present Christ rather than a future husband or wife.

1. God doesn’t promise marriage.

God gives many promises for those in Christ, but none of them includes a spouse. Yes, marriage is a wonderful gift and one worth praying for, but God doesn’t guarantee we will marry. Even for those who are given this gift, it is not promised for a lifetime, as many young widows can attest.

This is a shocking reality to many, likely due to a misapplication of Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” “If I desire marriage,” we reason, “God said I need only delight myself in him, and he will grant it!” But God does not specify how and when he will grant those desires.

For example, other desires often sit underneath the desire for marriage — desires for intimacy, belonging, wholeness, and companionship. But these are all desires God promises to meet in himself, whether we get married or not. He does not need marriage to satisfy the ache in our hearts; he only needs himself. God will give us the desires of our hearts — but in such a way that we’re singing praises to Jesus, not to a spouse.

Don’t hope in a promise that God has not given. Instead, put your hope somewhere secure: on the rock of Christ.

2. Marriage can’t handle the pressure.

Channeling all of our longings into marriage will crush it. No one person can handle the weight of our desires. The idea of a perfect mate can haunt us when we’re living side by side with another sinner.

When we write romantic and idealistic letters to a future husband or wife, we set our hearts in the wrong place and build unrealistic expectations. The more we pour into the letters, the further our future husband or wife will fall short of our standards.

Despairing disillusionment is common in Christian marriages likely because the partners have put too much hope in the marriage itself. Marriage is a terrible savior. But if we keep Jesus as our source of hope and joy, he will sustain us through every change in our relational status, and all the ups and downs of married life.

3. Singleness is not a subpar alternative.

Eagerly hoping in a future spouse can be a way to avoid the sting of prolonged, unwanted singleness. But God doesn’t see singleness as a curse — he sees it as a gift! The Bible calls singleness the greater alternative, one that promotes undistracted devotion to Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:32–35).

Although it’s true that most people will marry, that doesn’t prove that marriage satisfies. There are just as many unhappy married people as there are unhappy single people. Both groups face the same daily battle: Will I fight to find my joy in Jesus today?

The longing for marriage does expose one truth: eternal life is found in intimacy, in knowing and being known. But the intimacy we were made for is not intimacy with a fellow sinner, but intimacy with God through Jesus: “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

4. God is supremely valuable.

Banking our joy on a future spouse assumes we cannot be satisfied and whole without marriage. But marriage is not the grand prize of life — God is. He is the treasure in the field worth selling all we have to own.

In Christ, our access to intimacy with God is certain. To know God through Christ is to find abundant life. Though it may be hard to believe on the days our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, the Psalms witness to this reality all over:

  • “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” (Psalm 73:25).
  • “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10).
  • “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Though we cannot see, touch, and hear God like we can a fellow human, he is more real and more enjoyable than human intimacy ever can be. Draw near to him and he will draw near to you (James 4:8)! Take the energy you might put toward meditating on a future spouse and instead meditate on God, who has revealed himself to us in the pages of the Bible.

The Marriage We Are Promised

The end of Titanic pictures a heavenly reunion of all those who died in the 1912 tragedy. A youthful Rose walks through the crowd and approaches her one true love, the one who saved her. Finally, she is united with Jack. Forever and ever, amen.

Christian, do you recognize this narrative? It is a shadow of the happy ending awaiting us. One day, we will be reunited with believing friends and family members, and we will finally see our One True Love face-to-face, the One who saved us in every way a person can be saved. But it will not be our spouse, but Jesus.

His love saves us, satisfies us, and sustains us. Married or single, he alone should be the central figure in our lives. Don’t lay the weight of your desires, hopes, and dreams on an earthly marriage, but on Christ. Only his love is strong enough to sustain you.

The Church Is Not a Social Club

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 1:00pm

Jesus calls his church to meet the needs of her members. If anyone lacks, the first place they should be able to turn is the body of Christ.

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If You Want to Live Truly, Learn to Die Daily

Fri, 09/15/2017 - 10:00am

All year round the thorn of the gorse bush has been hardening and sharpening. Even in spring, the thorn does not soften or fall off. But at last, about halfway up, two brown furry balls emerge. They are small at first, but then they fully break out of last year’s thorn to flower into a ray of sunshine. The hardness gives way to a delicate beauty. The death of the thorn splits open to produce a blossoming resurrection of life. Death and resurrection.

We find the same pattern in our own lives.

I noticed this death-and-resurrection pattern when I became a mother. I had a traumatic birth experience, my full-term baby had to be admitted to the NICU, and he wouldn’t nurse. I battled through the difficult nursing experience I had with him for two weeks, was just about to give up, and then it worked out. When we got home from the hospital he would cry all night, and not go back to sleep, even when he was just fed. I would usually cry with him.

When evening time would come, feelings of dread would make my stomach sick because I knew what night would bring. On top of this, my body was trying to adjust to this new transition. My hormones launched me into depression. I would cry a lot for no reason, and I felt a constant loneliness and then guilt on top of it all for feeling like this when I had a new baby.

This was supposed to be a joyful time. But I felt like I was dying.

Everyday Death

I was being stripped of my independence, learning about true sacrifice and the strength of a selfless life. All I felt was the thorn of the gorse bush. I was being given a new identity as I transitioned into motherhood, and the death of my old life was painful.

But God redeems death. Death is a curse brought into our world through the sin of Adam (Genesis 2:17), but God brings good out of the bad — he brings resurrection. And resurrection does not depend on circumstances changing. It’s a work of the Spirit in our hearts giving us peace and joy regardless of our circumstances. It’s a place we come with Job when we say, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4). This is fertile ground for resurrection.

Escaping Death

Though death is part of the curse (and it certainly feels wrong in all its forms), God reshapes death into a gateway to life. Spiritual death-to-self is now the only way back to God, and physical death is the way back to paradise.

But we don’t like to talk about death. It makes us feel uncomfortable. And if the anti-aging industry proves anything, it’s our struggle to embrace our own mortality. Theologian Carl Trueman backs this up with his own theory of death borrowed mainly from Pascal, with twists of Augustine: “Much of life,” Trueman says, “can be explained as an attempt to deny or escape from death.”

Because of our death-denial and escapism, we try our best to circumvent all the little daily deaths and big deaths of life, and achieve resurrection benefits on our own. We take cheap, shallow ways to an ingenuine feeling of resurrection. Addiction is a prime example of this. In an article for Psychology Today, Stephen Diamond writes, “In some ways, addiction is an extreme example of an existential challenge we all wrestle with every day: accepting reality as it is.” Even if you’ve never attended Alcoholics Anonymous or drug rehab, we can all relate to the struggle to accept reality as it is.

So, we grasp at our own designs of resurrection by losing ourselves in shopping, alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, social media, sports, and much more. We’re obsessed with resurrection, but avoid death at all costs. Yet, true resurrection is preceded by death. It’s no wonder avoiding death and trying to get to the resurrection benefits on our own proves fleeting and leaves us unsatisfied. It’s a vicious cycle, unless we take up our cross with Christ (Luke 9:23) and crucify ourselves with him (Galatians 2:20).

Embrace the Way of Christ

Jesus shows us that we will never experience resurrection without embracing death. This is the cycle God has designed for us; he wants us to die so we can live.

This is how we come to Christ, but it’s also how we continually grow and flourish into Christ’s likeness until we physically die. Christ came to bring abundant life for us (John 10:10), but he purchased that life by walking the road to Calvary to its bitter end. He calls every one of his children to walk this same road (Mark 8:34). He gives us tastes of the abundant life of resurrection when we choose to walk this road.

So, let’s embrace the change, embrace reality, embrace that huge life transition, and embrace what God wants to teach us through adversity. Because through the deaths in our obedience and submission, God will work his resurrection.

When I saw my daily acts of self-denial as a mother as following in the footsteps of Christ, I felt glimpses of a resurrection. Motherhood humbled me. I finally realized just how weak and needy I was, and this made me cry out to God for strength and help. He then gave me tastes of joy in the mundanity of motherhood. When I had my second son, my experiences were completely opposite in every way. Why? Perhaps I had already been stripped of myself in this way before. I had already died that death, and now I was experiencing the peaceful fruit of resurrection.

Invited to Live Through Death

Talking of death sounds so morbid, but what God is really calling us to is life; he just desires to walk through death as a means to that end. Jesus told us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

The fruit of Jesus’s death was the resurrection of God’s people to true life in him. The fruit of his death has covered the globe and continues to grow wherever the gospel is spread. If we, like the grain of wheat, let ourselves be buried and die, we will have an abundance of fruit for ourselves and others. If we did more dying, we’d probably feel more alive than ever. Because, like the gorse bush, the flower will blossom from the thorn.

Be Patient with Your Slow Growth

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 8:02pm

We value speed today far more than we realize, and that makes the painfully slow process of our sanctification and personal transformation confusing and frustrating.

We live in an era of such rapid technological advancement and in a society that so values efficiency, productivity, and immediate results that we can hardly help but assume that the faster things happen, the better. Therefore, we often don’t value the precious benefits of slow growth.

Speed Shapes Us

For most of human history, most people’s lives were mapped on to the relatively slow cyclical rhythms of the seasons. Life was demanding and difficult because it had a primary, and at times ruthless, focus on subsistence, and so was largely dictated by the annual migration patterns of fish and herd animals, plant and fruit cultivation and harvesting, rainy seasons, and available sunlight.

One of the things this did was produce and reinforce in the minds of people, because of sheer necessity, an understanding and valuing of slow, incremental progress toward an aimed-for reward. Food, clothing, and housing were obtained through arduous, sustained effort and care.

In America, this has all but disappeared from living memory. For generations now, a superabundance and wide variety of food has been available and largely affordable a relatively short distance from nearly every home — prepared, packaged, and FDA-approved. We do not have to work nearly as hard, nor do we spend nearly the percentage of our annual income on food, water, and shelter as our ancestors did.

On the whole, these have been immense blessings. But our abundance and increasing conveniences on every level have shaped — and in some ways warped — the way we view time. We now expect that nearly everything should happen fast and with little or no inconvenience.

Slow Grown

But factors that are most beneficial in fueling productivity and economic growth and improved bodily health of individuals and cities are not necessarily factors that are most beneficial in fueling the spiritual growth and health of individual souls or churches.

God created us as organisms, not machines. There are millions of reasons why the fullness of time when God sent forth his Son occurred in the first century (Galatians 4:4). But one reason was so that the Son would frequently use agricultural metaphors to illustrate spiritual truths. Think of the parables of the sower (Matthew 13:1–9), the wheat and weeds (Matthew 13:24–30), and the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31–32). Think of metaphors of the fruit-bearing trees (Matthew 7:16–18), the vine and branches (John 15:1–8), and the reaping of souls as a harvest (Matthew 9:37–38; John 4:35–38). And Jesus’s apostles also used such metaphors, for instance spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22–23) and fields (1 Corinthians 3:6–9).

Something that the original hearers of these parables and metaphors would have intuitively understood, because of their familiarity with agricultural processes, is their gradual, progressive nature. Many of us probably miss the meaning because the processes are so foreign to us. Christians are slow-grown, and fruit-bearing typically comes after an arduous time of maturation.

The same goes for churches. There’s a reason we call the process of starting of new churches “church planting” and not “church manufacturing.” We admire stories of explosive church growth, just like we admire stories of explosive business growth. That’s not wrong, but it is not typical. And even what looks like a sudden harvest is usually due to an unseen, prolonged season of arduous sowing and watering and cultivation (John 4:35–38).

Benefits of Slow Growth

God designed us to develop habits of obedience and holiness slowly and incrementally because the process teaches and trains us to live by faith rather than by our often inaccurate perceptions and emotions. The waiting teaches us to trust more in the truth of what God says than the impulses of what we see or how we feel.

The long-term beneficial effect of slow, incremental transformation through the exercise of habit rather than impulse develops, over time, deeper, richer, more complex and nuanced affections for God, and integrates our beliefs into our whole being. There are things I am just beginning to really grasp now, well into middle age, that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.

God’s ways with us may not seem efficient to us. We might even think they are needlessly slow and inefficient. But none of God’s ways are needless, and God is not slow; he’s patient (2 Peter 3:9).

And he wants us to learn patience, too — it’s one of his slow-growing spiritual fruits (Galatians 5:22). Don’t be discouraged with your slow growth or with your church’s. Determine to “dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3 NASB). And bear in mind the broader principle captured in Jesus’s words to Peter: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7).

Examine the forces that shape your expectations. Do not let wrong assumptions fuel your discouragement or disillusionment. Your Christian life and your Christian church is much more like patient, faithful, slow farming than modern, efficient manufacturing. Trust your divine Farmer, your Vinedresser. He has very good reasons for maturing Christians and churches slowly, and not mass-producing them more quickly.

Does God Control All Things All the Time?

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 8:00pm

We know that God has the ability to control everything, but does he always choose to exercise his full sovereignty?

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Philippians 1:12–14: Suffering Can Advance the Gospel

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 1:03pm

Bullets can stop pastors. Shackles can stop missionaries. But nothing can stop the gospel.

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Philippians 1:12–14: Suffering Can Advance the Gospel

Thu, 09/14/2017 - 7:01am

Bullets can stop pastors. Shackles can stop missionaries. But nothing can stop the gospel.

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Must Elders Be Skilled in Teaching?

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 8:01pm

Does the qualification that pastors and elders be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) mean skilled in teaching or something more akin to willing and able when necessary?

In the New Testament, “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” are three names for the same teaching office (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5–7; 1 Peter 5:1–2). Pastors are elders are overseers. And the pastors are the chief teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Pastoral authority, in the New Testament, is always tied to teaching. Faithful leaders exercise oversight centrally through teaching, and teaching is their main instrument of exercising authority. Ongoing teaching is centrally important in the Christian church, and is the central work of her lead officers.

But how central? The qualification is “able to teach,” but able is an ambiguous word in our English. Is “able to teach” a high bar or a low one? Is this a minimal standard or maximal? Does able point to elders being skilled teachers or simply willing to teach if needed?

More to the point, are elders the kind of men who can teach if a gun is put to their head, or are they the kind who won’t stop teaching even at gunpoint?

Ability or Possibility?

“Able to teach” translates a single word in the original (Greek didaktikos), which appears only twice in the New Testament, in the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2 and the qualifications of “the Lord’s servant,” who “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Neither of those texts alone answers our question, but Titus 1:9 sheds some important light. Given the clear overlap between the elder-overseer qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we find Titus 1:9 puts more flesh on what Paul means by “able to teach”:

[An elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

What the eldership requires is no mere willingness, but ability and proclivity. Which is why some translations have rendered it “apt to teach” — apt meaning inclined, disposed, or given to teaching — or even “skilled in teaching.”

Teaching with Ability

Bill Mounce, in his thorough and insightful commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, makes this important observation about the civic context of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy:

The problem in Ephesus was false teaching, and it is difficult to see Paul allowing for only the passive possession of the gift [of teaching] and not active participation. [2 Timothy 2:24 and Titus 1:9] confirm that those who could teach did teach. (174)

In other words, elders are practicing teachers. Gifted teachers become elders, and elders continue to exercise their gift for building up the church. Mounce adds, “This is one of the more significant requirements of an overseer and sets him apart from the deacons. The elders are the teachers; the deacons are more involved in the day-to-day serving.”

Philip Towner agrees that “able to teach” is not just willingness but “skill in teaching” or “ministry skill or gift.” “Church leaders,” he writes, are to be “chosen from among those who display this gift.” David Platt also agrees. Elders, he writes,

can’t just know the Word extensively; it is imperative that elders communicate the Word effectively. . . . An elder must know the Word and spread the Word throughout the church and from the church throughout the world. He must be able to persuade people with the Word, plead with people from the Word, comfort people with the Word, encourage people from the Word, instruct people in the Word, and lead the church according to the Word. This is nonnegotiable. (1 Timothy, 56)

“Able to teach” is not a minimal criterion, but a maximal one. The question is not whether elders can teach if necessary, but are they effective teachers of the people? Are they fruitful in their context as teachers? Pastor-elders are among Christ’s gifts to his church, for her good, and they are gifts first and foremost associated with teaching, not mere decision-making or oversight:

He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–12)

A literal rendering of “the shepherds and teachers” here is “the pastor-teachers.” “Shepherds” and “teachers” are not two groups, but one. And throughout the New Testament, the office of pastor-elder walks hand in hand with the gift of teaching. It’s not as if one group in the church is the “pastors” or “elders” and then some other group is the “teachers.” The pastors are teachers, and those who are skilled in teaching God’s word, while meeting the other qualifications of the office, are those who in time, and in view of the church’s need, become the pastors of the church.

What About 1 Timothy 5:17?

The often-cited text against all pastor-elders being teachers is 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some read here a larger council of elders who “rule well,” and then, within that council, a subgroup “who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some even go so far as to name two kinds of elders: ruling elders and teaching elders. But is 1 Timothy 5:17 implying — as no other text does — two classifications of elder, those who teach and those who (typically) do not?

A key detail in the verse is how we understand the word “especially.” Platt comments,

That word “especially” might be better translated as “that is,” so that the verse might also be translated, “The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of double honor, that is, those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” In other words, good leaders in the church are those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy, 90)

Platt cites George Knight, who writes, “Paul is giving here [in 1 Timothy 5:17] a further description of those he has already mentioned” (Pastoral Epistles, 232). In other words, the “elders who rule well” are “those who labor in word and teaching.” Elders “rule well” by laboring chiefly as teachers. All elders are teachers in an important sense, not just a subgroup of a larger council. Mounce agrees: “A straightforward reading of the text would infer that all overseers were supposed to be skilled teachers” (Pastoral Epistles, 174).

Skilled in Context

But isn’t “skilled in teaching” simply too high a standard to work out in practice? Does a small, rural church stand a chance of finding “skilled teachers”? Wouldn’t such a qualification leave thousands of good churches not only without the plurality of pastor-teachers the New Testament prescribes, but even without a single pastor-teacher?

One brilliant attribute of the elder qualifications is that they are relative in the best sense. They are not simple boxes to check, but criteria for sober-minded evaluation. They are meant to be appropriately flexible and therefore apply to, and serve, local churches throughout the ages, around the world, in vastly different contexts. One way to say it is that “able to teach” is analog, not digital. It’s not meant to be either true or false of any given man’s life whatever the context. Rather, it’s a qualification to consider at a particular time relative to a particular context. A seminary degree doesn’t necessarily make a man “able to teach.” It just makes him a “seminary graduate.” Some given local church must determine for itself whether he is “able to teach” this specific flock.

Whether a man is “skilled in teaching” in a country church plant may be quite different than whether he is “skilled in teaching” in a long-established, bustling, city church. What individual churches should look for in their elders is not men who are “skilled in teaching” relative to the best preachers online, or even the church across town, but whether they are “skilled in teaching” relative to this specific congregation, whether urban or rural, fledgling or mature, long-established or newly planted.

  • Will this man be able to teach our people (not any people) in a compelling way?
  • Is he skilled enough to feed us regularly by teaching us God’s word?
  • Will our hearts soar regularly under his teaching God’s word to us?
  • Will he not just be willing but eager to rise to the occasion to persuade our people away from error?
  • Is he skilled enough as a teacher to lead and engage and inspire the people of our particular church to love God and his word and fulfill the mission Christ calls us to in this community?

These are the kind of questions church leaders and congregations can ask when appointing new elders. Such questions will help us keep our standards appropriately high, guard the indispensable place of teaching, and ensure we have the right men in the right offices for the long-term health of the church.

Making sure that our elders really are “able to teach” — not just able to get by, but able to teach with skill — will not only keep our churches well-fed, but have them ready to face the challenges that are coming, and are already here, when we will need both faithfulness and effectiveness in combatting false teaching.

How to Talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses About Jesus

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 1:00pm

Religions like Islam and Jehovah’s Witnesses and don’t believe Jesus is God, but his divinity runs through every thread of the New Testament.

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Popular Author Stumbles — What Should We Do With His Books?

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 10:00am

All authors are flawed, but what should we do with an author’s work when a public failure discredits them as a sound teacher?

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Are You ‘Not Yet Married’?

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 8:02pm

What do you feel when you hear the phrase “not yet married”?

Some will readily, even happily identify with the label. You’ve wanted to be married for a while now, and you don’t mind that others know about your desire. You sense God calling you to be a husband or a wife someday, even though that calling’s unconfirmed today. Your life is not all about finding “the one,” because you have given your life to Jesus, but you would love to share that life with someone and pursue him together. You don’t know what God will do, or if you will ever marry, but it’s clear that whatever might happen (or whoever), for now it is not yet.

Others will immediately be offended by the same four syllables. I know because I’ve read and responded to the emails. Perhaps you’re reading this article to validate your utter dissatisfaction with such a shallow view of singleness. Why would we define ourselves by the absence of marriage, especially if we are children of the living God, bought at infinite price, filled with divine power, and promised an eternity of life and happiness? I am not “not-yet-married,” you may say. I’m perfectly happy just as I am — my schedule, my career, my ministry, my freedom.

I often responded that way to married advice and encouragement during my single years — “Stop defining me by my singleness!” But I’ve come to like the phrase “not-yet-married” for at least four big reasons.

1. Some of you want to be married.

First, many Christians do have a deep and enduring desire for marriage. Their hearts ache to find a husband or a wife. It’s a calling they believe God has put on their life, and yet it’s still an unrealized and unconfirmed calling today.

Many of them have tried to pursue marriage the right way — not diving in too quickly, making sure to set clear standards and boundaries, and leaning in to hear from good friends and counselors. But it hasn’t worked out. The dates they have been on haven’t gone well, or no one’s ever shown any interest.

Others have thrown themselves into one relationship after another, dragged around by their desires for intimacy, and led into sexual immorality and regret. They’ve been told their desire for marriage is good, but they have no idea how to take the next step, or how to think about all these months, even years, of brokenness and loneliness. That may not be you, but it was me, and it’s at least a few of your Christian friends.

Regardless of your dating history, I want to shape your waiting and longing for marriage with everything Jesus has already given and promised us, and with the work he’s given you to do in every season of life, regardless of your marital status.

2. Most of you will be married.

Secondly, statistically most of you will be married. A few of you will be called to lifelong singleness, and it will be beautiful to watch you savor Christ and serve others as a single man or woman. It will be stunning for the world to see — someone trading the pleasure of marital love and sexual intimacy for a lifetime of singular devotion to God and laying down your life to bring others to him. But most of you will be married, even if that’s not on your radar or priority list today.

If trends from the last couple hundred years continue, the average believer will be married at some point in their life. Therefore, it seems appropriate to talk to most believers in their twenties or thirties as if they might one day be married. We should not be consumed by that reality, define our progress or contentment by our marital status, or give all of ourselves to pursuing marriage. We should, however, be preparing ourselves to be ready and faithful if God calls us to love and serve a husband or wife.

3. Some of you have given up on marriage.

Others are not convinced. You’re still skeptical and offended. Ironically, that’s another reason I’ve come to like the phrase “not yet married.” More and more young adults, at least in America today, are disillusioned with, and pessimistic about, marriage.

Several factors are at work, I’m sure. The pain of divorce may be the biggest. Fewer sons and daughters have seen their father and mother fulfill their vows and persevere in love. Put another way, more of us have tasted divorce firsthand as children, or watched our friends suffer from it. Why would I think my marriage would survive? Why would I subject myself to that kind of regret and pain?

But God gives us hope. He is the one who joins man and wife, and he can preserve their union, and make it flourish. With God, you can believe again in marriage. One of the most radical and countercultural things we can do today to declare our faith in Jesus is to marry someone and remain faithful to them, and only them, until we die.

4. Every Christian will be married.

Lastly, on this side of heaven, we are all not-yet-married in the most important sense. Every wedding day in this age is a pointer to a wedding day to come, when we are given again, forever, to our Savior and King. On that day, we will sing, “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19:7). God made every marriage a movie poster of a marriage to come — a marriage every single believer in Jesus will enjoy one day and forever.

The way we love a husband or wife, as imperfectly as we will love him or her, tells the world about the kind of love God has for us — and yet it will be as nothing compared to the real thing: an eternity of peace, joy, and life purchased for us by our Bridegroom at the cross. One day we’ll get to meet him face-to-face. It will be the greatest family reunion of all time — the wedding to end all weddings — when God, with open arms, receives us, despite all our brokenness, made beautiful by the blood of Jesus.

In Christ, we will all be married, and that marriage to come shapes every other desire and longing in this life — especially our desires for marriage.

Mobilizing the Not-Yet-Married

Being “not-yet-married” is not about dwelling on the negative. If you are in Christ, you are never again defined by what you are not. You have too much in him to be discouraged about not having anything else — even things as important in this life as a job, or a spouse, or children. The things that fill our lives and make us happy here are simple grains of sand compared to the endless beaches of knowing Christ.

It was, after all, an unmarried man who said, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8–9).

And being not-yet-married is not about waiting quietly in the corner of the world for God to bring us a spouse. It’s about mobilizing you — a growing generation and movement of single men and women — out of shame, selfishness, and self-pity into deeper levels of love for Christ and more consistent and creative ministry to others.

Popular Author Stumbles — What Should We Do With His Books?

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 8:00pm

All authors are flawed, but what should we do with an author’s work when a public failure discredits them as a sound teacher?

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Entitlement Will Rob You of Rest

Tue, 09/12/2017 - 1:00pm

Many of my friends were recently invited on an all-expenses-paid international trip. Great for them — but I was left out.

Of course, my first reaction was not to rejoice in their good fortune, or delight that they got to enjoy an incredible experience. Initially, my heart was jealous, hurt, and stinging under a sense of entitlement.

I’m in my mid-twenties, and my generation is notorious for our attitudes of entitlement. We think we deserve more than we do, and when we don’t get it, our entitlement siren starts blaring. And when it does, we often act irrationally — in a way that looks foolish from the outside.

So how can we recognize our own sense of entitlement, and take steps to surrender it to God? First, we need to understand what entitlement truly is.

From the Greatest to the Least

Entitlement is the belief that we inherently deserve privileges or special treatments, or that we have the right to something. Entitlement shows no partiality; it will reach for life’s greatest gifts and claim its smallest pleasures. When it comes to the big parts of life, we can find ourselves thinking along these lines:

  • “I deserve to have children, so why am I struggling with infertility? After all, aren’t children a blessing from God?”
  • “I’m tired of being single. I’ve remained pure and sought Christ, so why hasn’t he brought a spouse into my life?”
  • “I’m such a hard worker. I don’t understand why I still can’t manage to find a high-paying job.”

But entitlement can also touch smaller issues:

  • “I’m a good homemaker and work hard to keep the house clean and tidy. I deserve to have a nicer, bigger home.”
  • “I work so hard to provide for my family. I deserve to watch TV when I come home.”
  • “I’ve been good with my finances. I deserve to buy what I want for a change.”

Of course, as sinners, the only thing we deserve is God’s judgment. Therefore, we are not overstating matters when we say with John Piper, “A sense of deservedness or entitlement will keep us from knowing Christ.”

How to Fight Entitlement

If entitlement is so dangerous, and often so subtle, how can we fight it? I recommend three steps to move from a spirit of entitlement to a spirit of rest: diagnose your heart, remember your God, and imitate your Savior.

1. Diagnose Your Heart

The first step to letting go of entitlement is recognizing its presence in our hearts. To get there, we can ask ourselves questions that dig below the surface of our emotions. For example, we can ask ourselves questions like the following:

  • In what areas of my life am I discontent?
  • Why am I feeling so disappointed right now?
  • What do I think I need in order to live an abundant life?
  • How am I comparing my life to someone else’s life?

Once we’ve evaluated our own hearts and found the shadows of entitlement lurking, we do not stay there. Instead, we get outside ourselves and remember our God.

2. Remember Your God

In Psalm 23:1, David proclaims that the Lord is his shepherd, and he shall not want. How was David able to say this? Because he intimately knew the Good Shepherd’s heart. He knew that God promises to always love his children (Psalm 36:7). He knew that God would never leave him or forsake him (Psalm 139:7–12). He knew that God would always sustain him (Psalm 62:1–2). He knew that God was enough (Psalm 27:4). Because he knew all those things, he was able to fully trust that God would take care of him — even in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4).

If God really is good, then we have everything we need for life and godliness. We can rest content in what he chooses to give, and what he chooses to withhold. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray and ask God for things. But it does mean that if he chooses to say, “No” or “Wait,” we can trust that his answers are good and loving.

Cling to the promise that God loves you, even when you don’t get what you desperately want. Use these feelings as a catalyst into prayer. We can’t save ourselves from these feelings of entitlement. We can’t make our hearts better. But God can, and he will do so as we pour out our desires and disappointments to him and hope in his promises.

3. Imitate Your Savior

Christ was the only one who’s ever been truly entitled. He didn’t deserve to bear our sins on the cross. Yet he chose to give up his own desires, his own comforts, and his own pleasures for our eternal good. Paul beautifully reminds us that Christ laid down his entitlements so that we might share in his glory (Philippians 2:5–8).

As Christians, we should not only trust God when we don’t get what we want. We should also follow the example of our Savior and choose to give up what we think we deserve. The reward might not be immediate, but we’ll become more like Christ, and that is always worth it.

Humility and the willingness to give up our rights are not prized virtues in our world, but they are stunningly beautiful to Christ.

Hearts at Rest

It’s a good thing we don’t get everything we want in this life. Those unfulfilled desires remind us of where our true satisfaction comes from: Christ and Christ alone. In the famous words of Augustine, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee.”

May we trade our entitlement for a restful spirit in Christ. May we take our restless, entitled hearts to the throne of grace and surrender them to our loving Father.