As part of a younger generation of Christians today, we can give thanks to God for gifted mentors faithfully preaching the cross, men whose ministry began before many of us were born.
Theologically, we reap the fruit of seeds sown in the life and ministries of mentors like John Stott, John Piper, and C.J. Mahaney. For decades these faithful men (and others like them) have written books, trained pastors, and planted churches to lay a theological foundation we enjoy.
At times you can hear the direct impact of these mentors on a younger generation of Christians. Listen closely and you’ll likely hear a distinctive language used by young Christians and preachers. Our mentors have captured these truths in phrases—“the cross-centered life,” “gospel-centered parenting,” “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him,” and “Don’t Waste Your Life”—each, when used by a young Christian, is a giveaway to the continuing influence of older, faithful teachers.
In the language of some younger Christians, the influence of these teachers is subtle and less immediately noticeable. But in others the influence is obvious and pronounced.
In the case of hip-hop artist shai linne and his new album—The Atonement—the immediate influence of men like Stott, Piper, and C.J. is obvious and pronounced. This album reveals a man eager to learn and to apply that learning to his life and his work.
One track off the new album (“Were You There?”) is built from C.J.’s message on the Garden of Gethsemane. Listen to the track (and especially how the sermon excerpt ties the song’s message together at the end).
Throughout The Atonement, shai linne weaves lyrics and sermon excerpts together to reinforce the content of the songs. Here is a video explaining why he uses sermon excerpts in his music. It’s not for background noise (forward to the 3:03 mark).
The Atonement is an excellent album, not only for its content and quality, but for modeling how one hip-hop artist is diligently transferring what he learns about the cross from his theological mentors into his work. I take from this album a challenge to listen more carefully to the mentors, to let the truths of the cross settle into my own heart, and then to strive toward transparency in faithfully passing these biblical teachings to others.
Update: The Atonement is available through iTunes as well.
February 27, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
Previously, I mentioned a number of helpful quotes on the topic of fear
from Edward T. Welch’s recent book, Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest
(Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007).
But as you read in the title, this book not only addresses fear
as well. Being all too familiar with both, I am grateful Ed Welch addresses both. So for those who “specialize in worry” this book is for you.
The following quotes on this topic you will find underlined, checked, and bracketed in my copy of the book.
Worry is dangerous. It is not to be trifled with. When you find worries, anxieties, and fears, pay attention. (p. 95)
At this point, we know that worry and fear are more about us than about the things outside us. They reveal what is valuable to us, and what is valuable to us in turn reveals our kingdom allegiances. We also know that God is patient and compassionate with us, and he gives grace upon grace. Though alert to our divided allegiances, he persists in calling us away from fear and worry, persuades us of the beauty of the kingdom, and gives more than we can imagine.
With this in mind, his words should sound attractive, and we should be more and more inclined to listen. We should still like to abolish anxieties quickly, but we are learning that God values strong foundations and gradual growth, and such foundations are established as we feed on him and his words. As we meditate on Scripture and make it our own, we should anticipate slow but steady change. Worriers should be experts in a handful of passages. (p. 147)
For me, knowing that there is grace for tomorrow has made the most noticeable difference on my own anxieties and fears. The hurdle that was always in front of me was that I couldn’t imagine that grace, which is another way of saying that I limited God to the size of my own imagination. Now I know that I could never imagine that grace because I have yet to receive it. As a result, I am beginning to look forward to days of final exams rather than dread them.…This makes me think about all the times when I have received grace, didn’t take notice, and didn’t thank God for being faithful once again. (p. 145)
On Psalm 27:4 Welch writes,
Worry scans the universe looking for more worries to accumulate; it needs to be directed to what is most important.…Beauty is just what worry needs. Worry’s magnetic attraction can only be broken by a stronger attraction, and David is saying we can only find that attraction in God himself (pp. 152, 154)
Pastors, whether you are preparing to teach a series on fear or worry or preparing to counsel those for whom fear and worry is a besetting sin, this book
will make a difference in your soul, your preaching, and your counseling for the glory of God.
February 26, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Biblical counseling | Fear
As a supplement to Scripture in my personal devotion time, I’m reading and benefiting from Edward T. Welch’s book Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest
(Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2007).
You don’t need to read deep into this in order to come across good stuff for your soul. The good stuff presents itself on the first page of the preface, where Welch writes,
Like most writing projects, this book is aimed squarely at myself. Although I can be angry or melancholy, I am a fear specialist. In this I have found that I am not alone. Not everyone is a fear specialist, but there is no doubt that every single person who ever lived is personally familiar with fear. It is an inescapable feature of earthly life. To deny it is…well…to deny it. (p. 9)
Raise your hand if you can relate! My hand is raised.
Here is a sampling of quotes to create an appetite in your soul for this book.
The Atmosphere of Fear
As we possess more things, care about more people, accumulate more bad experiences, and watch Fear Factor and the evening news, it is as if we absorb fear. If they are not obvious in your own life, perhaps it’s because you have been living in a war zone your entire life. At first you noticed every gunshot. After a while the mayhem blends in with the rustle of the trees, the TV, and the children playing in the other room. Fear gradually became the background noise of everyday life. (p. 21)
Illogic of Fear
If you are afraid to fly because you keep thinking the plane will crash, you can replace that thought with another. I’ve flown many times before and nothing has happened. It’s the safest way to travel. This might help, but it rests on the premise that fear submits to logic, which is a dubious assumption. In reality, fears are rarely logical. (p. 23)
Logic in Fear
There is no dawdling in the face of fear. When we perceive it creeping up on us we want to keep moving. To slow down and listen to what it might be saying is counterintuitive. But fear is speaking, and we should listen. One useful life skill is to know when to listen to our feelings and when to ignore them. As a general rule, the first step is to listen. There is a logic—a language—to fear and anxiety, just as there is to most emotions. (p. 37)
Listening to Fears
So why do we listen to the logic of the often-illogical fears? Welch explains,
There are times when fear says that something is just plain dangerous and I should be afraid. But my goal in listening to my fears is to learn how to decipher what else they are saying. When I pause and listen, I might find that fear says a lot and it speaks clearly. What it says can provide me with immensely helpful direction.…Review some of your fears and ask: What do these fears say I trust in? What do my fears say I love? (pp. 47–48)
Fears reveal lies and lusts. Fears reveal idols. Fears reveal functional gods. When we submit to fear we submit to a false god rather than serving the God of Scripture, the God we seek to serve.
This process of examination is helpful
because I can accurately discern what is motivating me. Hopeful
because through the gospel I can turn from worshiping a false god, submitting to a functional god of my own creation, and instead flee to the Savior for forgiveness of sin and power to weaken my tendency to fear. In the Savior I find both pardon and power.
For pastors, this book can serve you big-time in biblical counseling. After you read the book, benefit from the book, and familiarize yourself with the book, you can assign the entire book to someone you are counseling or strategically assign certain chapters from the book. Those you are counseling can read in preparation for your next meeting with them, and at least part of your time can involve discussion and application of the content to their soul.
All “fear specialists” will find help and hope in this book
as we evaluate this common temptation through Scripture and fight this temptation with the gospel.
February 25, 2008 by Tony Reinke
Categories: Pastoral ministry
The April issue of Tabletalk Magazine includes an article by Joshua Harris titled “The Next Generation.” In the short article, Harris describes his relationship with C.J. and the transition of leadership he experienced at Covenant Life Church, and uses his experience to challenge older pastors (and older Christians in general) to mentor young Christians rather than “fend off” the next generation. Joshua concludes the article with these words:
It was God’s grace that led me to realize as a young man that I needed a mentor to advise and train me in ministry. And it was God’s grace that prepared a godly older man to be that mentor. Two decades earlier, in the early days of his ministry, C.J. had made a promise to God. He had always longed for but never truly found a mentor for himself. And so he told God that if he ever had the chance to be that mentor to a younger man, he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity. He wouldn’t be too busy.
When I came along he didn’t see me as a nuisance. He didn’t see me as a threat. His first concern wasn’t preserving his position. He saw me as a young man in whom he could invest in so that the most important truth—the truth of the Gospel—could be passed on. What a refreshing perspective. Our job isn’t to fend off the next generation. Our calling as lovers of the Gospel is to equip the next generation to surpass us in faithfulness and effectiveness.
Somewhere there’s a young man or woman praying for a mentor. Get ready. You could be God’s answer to that prayer. (p. 71)
February 22, 2008 by C.J. Mahaney
Categories: Confessing sin | Sports
Over the past few years, sports fans have endured a steady diet of news about high-profile athletes who have been busted for using steroids. Though steroid use is not limited to baseball, most recently professional baseball has been the focus of criticism due to the Mitchell Report and the recent hearings on Capitol Hill.
As I’ve listened in, read the sports pages, and watched part of the hearings, I’ve listened carefully to the way athletes articulate their words. Sadly, as I listen to these confessions of drug use, I see no discernable difference between the professing Christian and the non-Christian athletes. Specifically, this has been obvious in the recent round of charges against and admissions by Andy Pettitte.
If you’ve followed major league baseball, you know pitcher Andy Pettitte was identified in the Mitchell Report and later acknowledged using human growth hormones (HGH), a substance banned by the league.
Sadly, though he has publicly admitted using HGH, Pettitte (a professing Christian) did not get off to a good start. His first public statement (Dec. 15, 2007) included some “if” statements like “If what I did was an error in judgment on my part, I apologize.” I don’t really even know what this sentence means. But I do know that confessions including the word “if” quickly move away from a truly biblical confession.
Monday at a press conference from spring training, Andy Pettitte was asked by a reporter, “Considering it [HGH] is illegal, do you consider yourself a cheater?” Pettitte responded by saying,
From the bottom of my heart, I know why I did this. I didn’t do it to try to get an edge on anyone, I didn’t do it to try to get stronger, faster or to throw harder. I did it because I was told that it might be able to help me. That’s for other people to decide. If people think I’m lying then they should call me a cheater. Do I think I’m a cheater? I don’t. God knows my heart.
As I watched Pettitte, I noted how high-profile Christian athletes miss opportunities to present culture with a compelling alternative: someone who has been genuinely convicted of sin and confesses those specific sins. Instead, the norm for these athletes (who are professing Christians) is to conform to the evasive language so common when someone has been caught.
Reading these explicit references to God, I find it difficult to reconcile Pettitte’s statements with Scripture. He is a professing Christian, yet when it comes to his admitted use of HGH, we hear posturing and ambiguous language. And you see this throughout the process. The Mitchell Report named Pettitte, and Pettitte acknowledged the accuracy of the Report in regards to a personal use of HGH, but withheld specifics about his uses on other occasions. Then Pettitte later revealed more specifics about his use, when deposed by the congressional committee. And though he has (and only after he was caught) admitted to multiple uses of the drug, Pettitte refuses to see himself as a cheater.
Now Pettitte is claiming that his motives were pure, attempting to justify the steroid use by a desire to recover sooner from an injury. With this statement Pettitte presents himself as though what he did was admirable
. He says he did it for the team. Please, does he think we’re all fools?
Tuesday morning I jogged on the treadmill while watching ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning
. After clips from the Pettitte press conference on Monday, attention turned back to Mike and Mike. One of them, former professional football player Mike Golic, acknowledged that in 1987 he took steroids for five weeks to accelerate the healing process of shoulder surgery. After ridiculing Pettitte for using his faith in God, Christian beliefs, and personal feelings as justification for his actions, Golic went on to say, “I did it [steroids] for the same reason [as Pettitte]. But when I admitted that I did it, I never tried to come across as though I didn’t cheat. I did. It was wrong.”
Golic clearly acknowledged cheating. He did. And it’s disappointing to me that a guy who is (to my knowledge) not a Christian acknowledged he cheated and can easily discern the weaknesses of Pettitte’s “confession.”
As I watched the Pettitte press conference, I didn’t question the sincerity of his profession of faith. What I am questioning is his understanding of Scripture (specifically ethics as taught in Scripture). I wonder if he has a pastor. I wonder if he’s a part of a local church. I wonder if the Yankees have a chaplain who is a true pastor. Because I think Pettitte needs a pastor or chaplain who can meet with him to walk back through his confession and examine his heart in light of the holiness of God, the doctrine of sin, and (most importantly) the gospel.
It was disappointing because Andy Pettitte missed his moment. He had a moment where he could have articulated a clear confession that was theologically informed. Sadly, he didn’t, but others have; you just may not have heard of them. Meet Daniel Naulty.
The now infamous Mitchell Report on steroid use in major league baseball pointed a finger at high-profile players like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada, and Gary Sheffield.
Long before the Mitchell Report was released, a lesser-known pitcher named Daniel Naulty admitted using steroids. Naulty pitched for the Twins (1996–98) and Yankees (1999), which put him in contact with a number of players later named in the Mitchell Report. Naulty not only is a professing Christian, but is now pursuing a Ph.D in theology with the hopes of one day becoming a seminary professor.
Naulty has repeatedly confessed publicly his use of steroids. He told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
I stole people’s jobs. That’s the part for me that was so wrong. I have to explain to my boys that I took people’s jobs by cheating, and that penetrated my soul a number of years ago and still haunts me today.
And in reflecting on all the players behind the scenes he influenced to use steroids, he told USA Today
I want to apologize to as many [fellow players] as I can. If they forgive me, great. But I need to be prepared to be declined and I’d understand if they didn’t. I took a piece of their life away from them that I could never give back. You reap what you sow and I might very well reap a lot of what I sowed.
Let me tell you what he won’t reap. He won’t
reap a perjury charge or a seared conscience or the ridicule of a world that easily discerns someone who is lying. And he will reap
the love and respect of his sons.
Naulty embraced his moment to speak and he spoke clearly, specifically, and humbly. Pettitte missed his moment.
Now, what about your moment of confession? Your moment is coming, and so is mine. And this is what concerns me the most—that I will miss my moment.
My Confession of Sin
Though I’m seeking to grow in godliness (by God’s grace), I know indwelling sin remains, and that means I will sin against my wife, son, or friends at some point this week. I am the worst sinner I know, not Andy Pettitte. I am more familiar with my sin than I am with his sin. And I have my own moment fast approaching when I will need to acknowledge my sin.
Obviously I am not a high-profile athlete, and my words are not being recorded and evaluated by the press. But my words are being evaluated by God (Matthew 12:36
). And at times, I am sorry to say, my confession can be all too Pettitte-like.
When I have sinned against someone, a sincere confession is required. A confession that is sincere and pleasing to God will be specific
. I have learned to be suspicious of my confession if it’s general
. A sincere confession of sin should be specific
(“I was arrogant and angry when I made that statement; will you please forgive me for sinning against you in this way?”) and brief
(this shouldn’t take long). When I find myself adding an explanation to my confession, I’m not asking forgiveness but instead appealing for understanding.
If my so-called confession extends beyond a very specific (acknowledgement of sin) sentence or two, then I am most likely excusing my sin, and requesting understanding for my sin, rather than sincerely asking forgiveness because of my sin. So I have learned to be suspicious of any confession of sin that is lengthy. Genuine conviction of sin is evidenced by a sincere
, and brief
confession of sin, without any reference to circumstances or the participation of anyone else. When I sin, I am responsible for my sin, and the cause of my sin is always within my heart and never lies outside my heart.
Often after I sin, and even after I confess my sin—most importantly to God to receive the forgiveness I need from him for my sin through the death of his Son for my many sins—I experience a conflict in my soul about the confessing, when necessary, to the appropriate individuals. And whenever there is this conflict in my soul about specifically confessing my sin, I am aware that pride is actively at work in my soul, opposing the confession and seeking to persuade me that it wouldn’t be wise or even necessary for me to confess. But I have learned to ignore this noise from my arrogant heart, and instead weaken this noise by specifically confessing my sin to the appropriate individual as quickly as possible.
When I do confess, first and foremost to God and then (where and when appropriate) to others, I want my confession to be sincere and specific. I want my confession to express genuine sorrow and gratefulness to God for the mercy I experience because of the substitutionary sacrifice of his Son for my sins on the cross.
And when I confess my sin to others and ask their forgiveness when I have sinned against them, I don’t want my confession to resemble the press conference of a high-profile athlete, characterized by evasive language and the refusal to be specific. Instead, I hope my confession of sin is the sincere and specific confession of one genuinely convicted of his sin, sorrowful about his sin, and amazed at the grace of God provided for the forgiveness of sin.
On behalf of the many folks excited to make C.J.’s pastoral and practical wisdom more accessible to pastors, we announce the launch of the Sovereign Grace Leadership Interview Series podcast.
The interviews feature a roundtable discussion among C.J. Mahaney (president of Sovereign Grace Ministries), Jeff Purswell (dean of our Pastors College), and Joshua Harris (senior pastor of Covenant Life Church). The three gather on a regular basis to discuss a wide array of theological and practical leadership issues.
In the introduction to the first podcast, Jeff Purswell explains the origin of the series.
Well, as we talk about this series around here it gets a lot of laughs because the genesis has been so long in coming. C.J. contributes to the Pastors College (Sovereign Grace’s school where we train pastors for Sovereign Grace churches). C.J. and his wife, Carolyn, will meet with the students and their wives once a month in the evening to share wisdom, answer questions, share from their wealth of experience and so forth. And I used to sit in those every week or twice a month with C.J., and so many times I would be sitting there as he answers questions. And I would be amazed at the wisdom coming forth, the grace that is on C.J., and the wealth of experience he has. And I remember thinking, “Oh, this would be so good for so many pastors.” Actually, I talked to a pastor from another Sovereign Grace church and told him about this context. I will never forget what he said. “I would give my right arm to sit in that basement and listen to C.J.”
Lend your ear and keep your arm because those Pastors College contexts have been recreated, recorded, and made available for free download.
But beyond the wisdom of C.J., you will glean valuable insights from Jeff and Joshua, too. The combined wisdom of these three men—each with unique church leadership experiences—converges into an informative and lively conversation that will especially serve pastors.
The first episode—“The Pastor and His Reading”—covers the importance of reading, the priority of a developed discipline of reading, and gets down to specific book recommendations (check your book budget balance before listening).
Listen, download, and subscribe through the podcast page here. Below are links to all the resources mentioned in the podcast. Enjoy!
Resources mentioned in the podcast:
Normally, biographies are written about unusually gifted men. Edwards. Whitefield. Spurgeon. Calvin.
Biographers remind us of exceptional character, extraordinary gifting, and impressive intellects. And I'm grateful to God for these men and the effect of their example on my life.
But at times, reading these biographies is discouraging, rather than edifying, as we are reminded afresh about the difference between the great leaders in church history and our sorry selves. And though we benefit from the example of these men, most of us cannot relate to them because we’re aware of our average intelligence, average gifting, and our preaching is—not surprisingly—average as well. (Raise your hand if you’re working with that package!)
As I read their biographies I know I should be inspired, but at times I find myself increasingly discouraged (and let me be clear—this is because of my pride). Rather than filled with faith to charge into my day and prepare a sermon, care for God’s people, and preach, I feel a bit hopeless.
And while reading these biographies I also hope my church members never read these books because they could only compare me to this individual and that would prove unfavorable!
What’s a pastor to do? Here is one recommendation.
For pastors like myself with average gifts, Dr. Don Carson has given us a unique biography of the life and ministry of an ordinary pastor—his dad. It's titled, Memoirs of An Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson (Crossway, 2008).
If you are like me, this book will provide you with an invaluable reminder of what is most important to pastoral ministry—faithfulness.
This new book will provide you with a biblical perspective if you envy those pastoring large churches, if you find yourself disappointed with your church, discouraged about the apparent limited effectiveness of your preaching, and struggling to see the fruitfulness from your pastoring. I believe this book will give you a biblical perspective. It will give you hope and fresh joy in pastoral ministry.
For the pastor of a larger church, this book will direct your attention away from matters of secondary importance. It will point your heart away from a preoccupation with the numerical size of your church, and away from the temptation to pride and selfish ambition. It will direct your attention to the importance of persevering in faithfulness to the Savior as a pastor called to preach Christ and him crucified and care for those entrusted to you by the Savior.
And maybe (just maybe) your faithful pastoral ministry and average gifting are providing a compelling example for your son or grandson who will greatly exceed you in gifting and fruitfulness. Just like Tom Carson’s boy.
But most importantly, this book will provide us with an eternal perspective of pastoral ministry. And that eternal perspective will make all the difference in how you serve as a pastor today. Dr. Carson closes with these moving and memorable words.
When he died, there were no crowds outside the hospital, no editorial comments in the papers, no announcements on television, no mention in Parliament, no attention paid by the nation. In his hospital room there was no one by his bedside. There was only the quiet hiss of oxygen, vainly venting because he has stopped breathing and would never need it again.
But on the other side all the trumpets sounded. Dad won entrance to the only throne room that matters, not because he was a good man or a great man—he was, after all, a most ordinary pastor—but because he was a forgiven man. And he heard the voice of him whom he longed to hear saying, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Lord.’ (p. 148)
An Ordinary Pastor is a rare and precious gift from one of evangelicalism’s greatest scholars. How generous of Dr. Carson to bequeath his father’s quiet legacy to us all. May every pastor and Christian who reads this book aspire to pass on such an ‘ordinary’ legacy.
This week Sovereign Grace Ministries is hosting about 100 pastors for the Pastors College preaching conference. Sessions have been presented by C.J., Jeff Purswell (dean of the Pastors College), and Mike Bullmore (pastor and former professor of homiletics at Trinity Evangelical School of Theology).
A highlight has been the informal question-and-answer sessions, with the speakers covering a range of questions on preaching (and a few sports-related inquiries for C.J.). It was during one of these sessions, one brave pastor stood and asked for counsel in his struggle with the discouragement he experiences when listening to prominent and more-educated preachers.
All three panelists, C.J., Jeff Purswell and Mike Bullmore, responded in the following answers.
The book A God-Entranced Vision of All Things contains a chapter by Donald Whitney on Jonathan Edwards and his practice of the spiritual disciplines. It’s worth reading and re-reading. At the end of that chapter he talks about how we cannot emulate Edwards’s example in gifting, capacity, and intelligence. What we can emulate is his disciplined use of time.
Whitney argues that given Edwards’s gifting and intelligence, it’s no less than amazing that he was so disciplined in his use of time. Edwards had every excuse to avoid being disciplined in his use of time. I’m familiar with interacting with other preachers clearly smarter than myself.
Here’s what I know. I must do my best. My best will not be as effective as their best. But that would be a false comparison and the fruit of pride in my life. I need to isolate myself from comparing myself to them, and apply 2 Timothy 2:15 to my life and go through a given week saying, “By the grace of God I want to do my best.” My best involves devoting time to preparation, and by the grace of God my best involves serving the Lord with gladness in the preparation process.
On Sunday, at the conclusion of my preparation—and by God’s grace—I want to say I did my best. And where I didn’t, ask forgiveness for my laziness or procrastination.
But this preaching isn’t solely dependent upon my limitations of gifting and intelligence. The text of Scripture and the Spirit of God and the work of the Spirit in and through this text can transcend all of my limitations and find its way into the heart of my hearers. I can proceed with confidence because I am called to preach here.
Calling makes all the difference. Mike Bullmore isn’t called to preach here consistently. Jeff isn’t called to be the senior pastor at the Knoxville church. Mark Dever isn’t called to be the senior pastor at your church. As a preacher in a local church, you are uniquely called. In the mystery of God’s mercy I am called to my church. Therefore God will not disappoint. He’s going to fulfill his promises and has a fixed purpose.
My calling will ultimately serve my church. Therefore I could argue that you are the most important individual to be addressing your church. Yes, you might not be able to deliver the message with the technical skill of Mark Dever or the illustrative skill of Josh Harris. That’s not the point. You shouldn’t be evaluating yourself or comparing yourself to those individuals. Learn all you can and be provoked by them. But the point is that God has called you to be the senior pastor of that church, and the people in your church are built into you and they will hear you in a way they will not hear any of those speakers. Sure, those guys come in and they may preach an effective message, but that’s very different from what you are doing over the course of weeks and months and years to build and serve and lead that church.
I’m a little reluctant to add to that. I would want to say a few things. Nobody is exempt from what’s been asked. Nobody.
It’s awkward because I don’t consider myself in this elevated way. Obviously, we all have different experiences and opportunities (these are realities). But there are guys I think about in the same way you’ve mentioned. I hear certain preachers and I have this mixed reaction when I listen to them preach. There’s a part of me that says, “I can never preach again. I’m done.” And there’s another part of me that says, “I cannot wait until Sunday.” Because there’s a fire in the preacher’s bones that God has given you and it reaches down to your calling.
And we must take larger biblical realities and apply them here. Psalm 103:14 applies to all of us the same: “For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (ESV). That applies to every one of us. So the difference between (you name the guy) and you is minutia on the larger scale. It is God who is at work.
And so your theological conviction about who’s really getting the work done, I think, really sustains you and pulls you up during those times. This is not about my gifts or skills.
Also, I was just thinking about a reference from J.I. Packer’s chapter in Preach the Word. Listen as a past Archbishop of Canterbury expresses his estimation of Charles Simeon (1759–1836).
The quality of his preaching was but a reflection of the quality of the man himself. And there can be little doubt that the man himself was largely made in the early morning hours which he devoted to private prayer and devotional study of the Scriptures. … Such costly self-discipline made the preacher. That was primary. The making of the sermon was secondary and derivative. (p. 152)
What’s being described there is available to every one of us in this same degree.
We should all be encouraged. That is the most important thing in preaching, is it not? It’s not detailed, exhaustive, knowledge of the original language.
The most important is your engagement with God, which finds expression in his call upon you to care for these people, you delivering God’s Word out of a heart that cares—a heart that loves these people and seeks to serve them out of a responsibility to be their shepherd. All this rests on the only One who can change them, the only One who can illuminate them, the only One who can transform them, the One who promises to do this by his Word. Those are the most important realities in preaching, and they are accomplished by God and not by us.
Today’s pastor is given the challenging task of discerning error that comes published in hip packaging from Christian publishers, authored by professing Christians.
So many errors, so little time.
In executing this responsibility, pastors must discern whether the influence of the individual and the gravity of their error necessitate research and evaluation by a pastor. Today I want to explain one particular concern and give you an inside look at how I approach this difficult task.
Now, because this short post limits what I can say, I recommend listening to one the finest messages on this topic—Mark Dever’s message from New Attitude 2007 (“Discern Your Doctrine”).
Gilbert on Bell
Today I want to draw your attention to Greg Gilbert’s critique of Rob Bell’s NOOMA videos. Greg serves as director of theological research for the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In prioritizing what materials concern us as pastors, I believe Rob Bell’s writings, videos, and influence cannot (and should not) be ignored. I think we should carefully consider Greg Gilbert’s reviews, which demonstrate a commendable combination of humility of heart and theologically informed discernment about matters of primary importance.
Within this pastoral task of discernment, I’m reminded of four biblical priorities.
1. Protect Your People
A pastor’s role includes protecting the flock from error. This is no easy task today, especially when so many of the popular books and videos published by professing Christians who appear to have serious theological deficiencies. Yet pastors cannot simply ignore the prevalence and influence of these materials; they have the responsibility to protect those entrusted to their care.
This discernment is especially important when the issues are of primary importance and not secondary, when—as carefully noted by Greg Gilbert—matters of the gospel are in question.
It’s worth noting that acting to protect the flock from published teachings that depart from Scripture is handled differently than steps taken privately to confront a brother in sin (i.e. Matthew 18:15-20). Let me state clearly that I don’t assign sinful motivation to Rob Bell. Actually, I assume he is sincere. But sincerity doesn’t exempt any of us from the appropriate evaluation of what we teach.
2. Prepare Your Heart
When required to critique the writings and teachings of another, I must pay careful attention to my heart. Scripture calls us to correct those in error with gentleness, avoiding quarrelsome attitudes, showing kindness to everyone, and enduring all evil (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Whenever it’s necessary to critique erroneous content, I find it helpful to remind myself of the mercy of God. Any insight I have learned has been learned from others, and ultimately, this discernment has been graciously revealed by God. In no way does my critique indicate intellectual or moral superiority on my part. We must critique erroneous content, but our critique must be humble and not self-righteous.
If we accurately perceive God’s mercy, this will become an occasion of thanking God for his mercy in our lives rather than an opportunity for self-righteous communication.
Whenever we take up this task of critiquing and addressing error, we must guard our hearts and pursue the task with humility and gentleness.
3. Preach Sound Doctrine
The most effective way to protect your church from error is by a steady diet of gospel-centered, sound doctrine. For this reason I don’t recommend that pastors repeatedly and consistently make public references to erroneous books or media.
Only on a few particular occasions do I think it’s wise for a pastor to make specific reference to an individual in the context of a sermon. However, a pastor must be aware of what is popular and influential, because he will be asked these questions by church members in private conversations. So I draw a distinction between what a pastor addresses in a sermon and what he should be prepared to address in private conversation when approached by a member of his church.
You need to be prepared for these conversations, and that’s why I believe Greg Gilbert’s reviews will help prepare you for when you are asked about Rob Bell.
4. Pray for Rob Bell
We must pray for those who are in need of correction and who teach erroneous doctrine. Even those classified as our “opponents” should be addressed kindly, out of concern for their souls, praying that God will lead them to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25). How much more care should be taken with a professing brother in Christ?
Specifically, I pray for Rob Bell in the following ways:
- Pray that God reveals to him the content of the gospel.
- Pray that God reveals to him the primacy of the gospel.
- Pray that he perceives his accountability to God and responsibility for those he leads.
- Pray that he would be humbly attentive and responsive to the critique of godly scholars.
- Pray that he would devote himself to the study of sound doctrine by finding his way to the right books and scholars who can train him.
Prayer is an effective way to examine our motives in correcting others. When I pray for someone I find it more difficult to be self-righteous in my attitude toward him. Correction without concern for the corrected leads to self-righteousness. Correction with sincere concern for the welfare of the corrected is a display of genuine humility and love.
In all instances of critique, we must carefully research the details in private to avoid misrepresenting the position of the one we critique. I think you will agree that Greg Gilbert’s reviews of Rob Bell’s NOOMA videos have been carefully researched. But the reviews also display character we can learn from—a careful humility of heart and a theologically informed discernment about matters of primary importance (those related to the gospel).
APEX, NC—Last weekend C.J. traveled to North Carolina to join Sovereign Grace Church in celebrating the grand opening of their newly-renovated facilities and to draw attention to God’s kindness.
Saturday night, senior pastor Phil Sasser invited C.J. to Cameron Indoor Stadium, to watch the Duke men’s basketball team host Miami. C.J. was thrilled to experience the deafening environment where his beloved Maryland Terrapins have repeatedly upset the Blue Devils.
On Sunday morning C.J. preached from 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, a text highlighting the active work of God in graciously revealing the gospel to blinded sinners.
Toward the end of the sermon, C.J. shared his testimony in light of God’s sovereign initiative and left the church with words of hopeful anticipation. God will bless the church not because of capable human leadership (which it has) or because of dedicated, faithful, and humble members (which it has). The future fruitfulness of the church is supported by the goodness of God who initiated and now sustains his church.
His comments are worth quoting at length:
“Therefore, if you are a Christian this morning you must realize you did not discover God. He graciously revealed himself to you. And that realization should leave you freshly amazed by the grace of God this morning. If you have received and responded to the message of the cross, this wasn’t the fruit of human wisdom or human intelligence. The ability to perceive the wisdom of God wasn’t resident within you from birth and eventually exercised and developed by you. This was, instead, revealed to you by the Holy Spirit. No one discovers God through human wisdom. Divine wisdom is revealed. If it is perceived, it is because it has been revealed, revealed through the preaching of the gospel and by the work of the Holy Spirit revealing Christ and him crucified to sinners like you and me.
I can’t read this passage without reviewing and reliving my conversion.
You see, apart from this distinct, gracious work of the Spirit, this wisdom of God—as defined and displayed in the cross—is foolishness to us.
Prior to my conversion everything taking place in this church this morning would have appeared to me as complete foolishness. If you had known me and had been so kind as to invite me, and I was seated in your midst, this is what I would have been thinking had I come—This is incredibly strange.
And it was hard to impress me with strange, because I was immersed in the drug culture at the time. For a lengthy period of time I—sadly, and to my shame—took hallucinogenics daily, as if they were vitamin C. Therefore I was very familiar with strange!
And yet, prior to my conversion, had I come upon this church or any church like this church I would have thought, OK, this is very strange. They are singing and they seem to be singing to someone. And they seem to be singing very specifically and passionately to someone. I would have thought the words to the song were very, very strange. I would have thought anybody in here raising their hands very, very strange. And then there is an offering and people are happy to give? I would have thought, It is getting stranger by the minute in this place. But then if I was sitting out there listening to someone like me preach the gospel—apart from the Spirit of God working in my soul—I would have thought it was very, very strange.
And apart from the Spirit impressing this truth on my soul I would be thinking, OK, when does it end? I am thankful my neighbor asked me here, and I am grateful there is food afterwards and so hopefully, hey, pal, how about wrapping this sermon up?
I was selfish and arrogant, rebellious, hardened, and I would argue (to some degree) a happy sinner. I was enjoying the pleasures of sin. And I was passionate about sin. I wasn’t just observing others sin. I was passionately pursuing sin and recruiting and training others to participate with me in my passionate pursuit of sin. Had you met me, you would not have liked me, and you would have justifiably disliked me.
A good friend of mine I had grown up with moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. While in Florida, he somehow wandered into a church one day—and he heard the gospel, experienced the miracle of new birth, turned from his sins, and trusted in the Savior!
Within just a few weeks my friend had a single mission he would not be deterred from completing—to return to Maryland to share with his friends about the gospel that dramatically changed his life. And so after having not heard from him for a lengthy period of time, suddenly I heard from him and we arranged to get together. I anticipated that the partying that took place previously would just continue. I had no idea he was a Christian.
That first night as we sat together in my room, I took out various forms of hash I had to offer him. He declined. And for just a moment I was surprised, but I wasn’t deterred and so I began to smoke.
As I began to smoke, he began to talk.
Now, he hadn’t been a Christian but for a few weeks. He knew, actually, very little theology. But he knew the gospel. And because human wisdom hadn’t been integrated, the cross he preached to me was not emptied of its power. Oh, no. It was full of power! And for the first time in my life I heard the gospel. My friend told me that Christ died for my sins. And in that moment, as he preached, I can only tell you God acted on my soul. Something took place in my heart.
I now look back and know it was the miracle of regeneration. And what I had previously thought was folly and idiocy suddenly became the gracious wisdom of God in the form of a cross and a Savior who died for the worst sinner I knew (me) in order to forgive my sins. And that night, in that place, I turned from my sins and I trusted in the savior. Everything immediately and dramatically changed in that moment.
What happened in that moment? What happened was the fruit of what had been decreed in eternity past. In eternity past God decreed to send and sacrifice his Son. In eternity past God decreed to, by his Spirit, reveal his Son and the sacrifice of his Son to me through the preaching of the gospel by my friend. And in that evening I was acted upon by God.
Even in the midst of all my theological ignorance, had you pulled me aside and had you in any way implied that I initiated this, that I was seeking God, that somehow I discovered him I would have said to you as tactfully as I knew, ‘You don’t have a clue. You don’t know me. I wasn’t seeking this!’ …
My friend didn’t reason with me (not that there isn’t a place for reasoning with somebody). But he shared the gospel with me. And God, by his Spirit, revealed the gospel to me. And that night I was aware of a few things distinctly. One was this—the initiative for all of this came from above…
Oh, brothers and sisters, join with me now in ascribing the change in your life wholly to God.
Wholly to you, Lord! We ascribe it wholly to you! We ascribe the existence of this church and the continued sustaining of this church wholly to you. We didn’t initiate this. This is not the fruit of human leadership and human intelligence. Oh, thank God for that! This church’s future does not rest on human leadership and human intelligence. Oh, how grateful I am for the leadership!
Here is why I have confidence in the future of this church. He—the one who began a good work in this church and in and through your hearts—he will sustain you and he will bring it to fruition and completion until the day of Jesus Christ (Php 1:6). That is my confidence in the future of this church.”
-C.J. Mahaney, preaching at the grand opening of Sovereign Grace Church in Apex, NC (February 3, 2008)