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Archive for April, 2007

The weekend news brought two pieces of information that were hard to hear.

First, was the announced retirement of John Stott, a great teacher of Scripture, an excellent example in ministry and a humble disciple of Jesus Christ.  I credit Stott’s writings with having some of the greatest effect on my understanding of faith and ministry.  I did not always agree with some of his conclusions on lesser matters, but his book, The Cross of Christ, might be one of the best works on the truth of Christ’s subtitutionary atonement ever.  I have often required his book (now updated), Basic Christianity, as required reading for baptism or church membership.  I think he spoke in chapel at my seminary every year I was there.  It was about the only chapel service where the entire seminary community would attend.  I pray God blesses him greatly in retirment and that he finally finds the time to do the bird-watching he has always loved.

HT: Justin

The second item was significantly harder to hear, though maybe not unexpected, was the news that Robert Webber has gone to be with the Lord after a battle with pancreatic cancer.  I met him while I was planting a small church in a rural area when he offered a Blended Worship seminar to the pastors in the region.  After graduating from seminary in the midst of the worship wars, I thought I knew what comprised blended worship.  Was I off the mark!  Webber re-opened my eyes to the beauty of the Great Tradition in worship as God’s people are led to respond to God’s grace in the liturgy through word and sacrament.  I had seen some of that growing up in the Episcopal Church, but Webber put it all together for me after I had left.  His work on merging the ancient with the future in the church continues to influence my ministry.  I pray that his family will know the strong, everlasting arms of God underneath them and be wrapped in His infinite love during these difficult days.

HT: The Boar’s Head Tavern

An updated announcement on Robert Webber is here.

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In the middle of the message tonight looking at Isaiah 6:6-7.

The prophet has seen the Lord high and lifted up, in all of His glory sitting on His throne.  He has seen the Seraphim calling out in voices of roaring thunder, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of His glory.”  Suddenly he realizes he is not holy and he cannot survive.  “Woe is me!  I am a man of unclean lips living with people who are unclean!”

A Seraph flies to Isaiah holding a white hot coal from the altar of incense and touches Isaiah’s lips pronouncing him to be justified, his guilt is taken away and his sin atoned for.  The pain of that moment struck me while preparing to preach.  All afternoon had been a battle against sinfulness in thought, word and deed.  It wasn’t always a successful battle.  I felt the heavy weight of my sins, both tremendous and trivial in many ways.  I even spent time before the message alone confessing sin in my office.

But while preaching the verses in Isaiah 6:6-7 and how God dealt with Isaiah’s sin I sensed time slow down to a near stop as I was speaking.  I continued preaching but suddenly there was something happening around me at another level.  I was convicted not only of my unholiness and sin, but the realization hit me like Isaiah, God should strike me down in the pulpit.  I am not worthy to preach such Good News.  I thought my heart was going to stop right there in front of 30 people. (Our standard Sunday night congregation.)

In the same moment, the words came so clearly, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will save me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  And then time returned to normal without me missing a word or a beat of the message.

I do not share this to sound super-spritual.  I am not or I would not have been in my office an hour before service tonight confessing sin.  Events like this rarely (like almost never in 12 years) happen while I am preaching.  I had long understood Isaiah’s predicament on many different levels, physical, spiritual, emotional.  But I had never been brought into his experience in such a powerful way.

I cannot say enough how grateful I am for Christ’s obedience and sufficient, perfect sacrifice for my sins.  I am not worthy and I will spend all of eternity in awe of God’s grace and mercy to me, a gross sinner.

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Sunday Prayer

Almighty God, who showest to those who are in error the light of Thy truth, to the intent that they may return into the way of righteousness; Grant unto all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s Religion, that they may avoid those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Some of the folks over at Prydain have asked nicely that I post my messages on an upcoming series on holiness.  That’s a really nice request but it makes my head grow fat and light.  Fortunately I have 4 kids, a wife and a church who will pop that bubble first chance they get and probably without even making an effort or knowing that they did it.

Ok, I’ll honor the request, but I wish to say caveat emptor.

I read great preachers, I’m not one of them.  Some of the messages at Prydain and other places humble me with how well the Scripture is handled.  I never think I’m in that category.  To paraphrase, Cap’t Barbossa in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean, “I’m but a simple pastor.”

Second, due to the size of the messages I generally preach here (25-35 minutes), I will post an executive summary of the messages.  These are the Sunday evening messages.  Much of the message is significantly context sensitive to our own ministry milieu.  I’ll try to eliminate most of that context sensitive material and give the five-ten minute version on this site.  In seminary, I was taught to be prepared for emergencies or the unexpected the require shrinking the message down to the basic points with each point getting only a paragraph or two.  That is what I will try to accomplish here.

A fair notice: Because these are the Sunday evening messages, there will not be a Sunday evening service on Mother’s Day.  I thus, avoid the bullet for another year of having to choose between my wife and my ministry.  Not that there would be much debate.  I have long preferred the reddish blond, Irish lass over other distractions.

However, Father’s Day is still up in the air.  I’ll be surprised if that service gets cancelled, but my vote is already in for honoring the dads in the same way as the moms.  But our congregation doesn’t have enough dads as heads of their households to make the point.  So the issue might be moot.

The series is titled, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Holiness.”  I admit to ripping off the American Declaration of Independence, even though I’m not preaching to Americans.  Or is it John Locke that I’m ripping off, I can’t remember, but I’m not preaching to a church of British, either.  It comes from a couple of sources and some of my personal convictions about the Christian life.  The main sources are Scripture (duh!), Jerry Bridges’ classic book, The Pursuit of Holiness and J.C. Ryle’s work, Holiness.

My convictions stem from a belief that true, real life is only found as we are connected to the Vine, Jesus Christ.  Life is found in receiving God’s forgiveness offered through Jesus’ atoning work on the Cross and life-giving resurrection three days later.

Forgiveness of sins brings freedom from sin’s power in our lives.  It would be hell on earth if we were forgiven of our sins and then thrown back into the devil’s den and told to live perfect lives without the power of sin being cancelled and destroyed in our lives. We can be confident that the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead has crushed sin’s power in our lives.

Such life and liberty offer us the opportunity to pursue the holiness God calls us to live.  He says, “Be holy, for I am holy.”  It can only happen as we receive new life in Christ, and freedom from sin’s mighty power.  The command is real.  God expects us to live holy lives, fully alive in Christ and free from the corrosive power of sin. Hopefully, and with God’s grace, we’ll discover how that can happen.

Look for the messages to be posted here on Monday evenings or early Tuesday mornings.  See ya then.

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A scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to the extravagantly broad and liberal theology which is so much in vogue at the present time. The tendency of modern thought is to reject dogmas, creeds, and every kind of bounds in religion. It is thought grand and wise to condemn no opinion whatsoever, and to pronounce all earnest and clever teachers to be trustworthy, however heterogeneous and mutually destructive their opinions may be. Everything, forsooth, is true and nothing is false! Everybody is right and nobody is wrong! Everybody is likely to be saved and nobody is to be lost! The atonement and substitution of Christ, the personality of the devil, the miraculous element in Scripture, the reality and eternity of future punishment, all these mighty foundation-stones are coolly tossed overboard, like lumber, in order to lighten the ship of Christianity and enable it to keep pace with modern science. Stand up for these verities, and you are called narrow, illiberal, old-fashioned and a theological fossil! Quote a text, and you are told that all truth is not confined to the pages of of an ancient Jewish book, and that free inquiry has found out many things since the book was completed! Now, I know nothing so likely to counteract this modern plague as constant clear statements about the nature, reality, vileness, power and guilt of sin. We must charge home into the consciences of these men of broad views, and demand a plain answer to some plain questions. We must ask them to lay their hands on their hearts, and tell us whether their favourite opinions comfort them in the day of sickness, in the hour of death, by the bedside of dying of dying parents, by the grave of a beloved wife or child. We must ask them whether a vague earnestness, without definite doctrine, gives them peace at seasons like these. We must challenge them to tell us whether they do not sometimes feel a gnawing ‘something’ within, which all the free inquiry and philosophy and science in the world cannot satisfy. And then we must tell them that this gnawing ‘something’ is the sense of sin, guilt and corruption, which they are leaving out in their calculations. And, above all, we must tell them that nothing will ever make them feel rest, but submission to the old doctrines of man’s ruin and Christ’s redemption and simple child-like faith in Jesus. –J.C. Ryle
Taken from Holiness, chapter 1

Rejecting dogmas, creeds and every kind of bounds in religion sounds so familiar until I realized that once again the good bishop is speaking across time to a people he didn’t know, about truths he definitely understood.  And he understood the abandonment of those dogmas, creeds and all bounds in religion would have implications for the comfort that the Gospel brings to this world.

If the teaching of the scriptural view of sin is passe and abandoned, there is no Good News to offer this world.  What need would there be for it?  Good is only measured against that which is less good or bad.  What comfort does Christ’s atoning death for our sins offer to religious people who find that humans are basically good and perfectable, though sometimes making mistakes on the way to perfection?  What comfort is the crucifixion of Christ and His glorious resurrection if we are not all marked, stained, and soul-darkened wretches living bound in a marginally lit dungeon and in desperate need of freedom, light and cleansing?

I do not mean to pick on The Episcopal Church, but the example is, unfortunately, obvious.  I pray that better teaching and leadership will come to her through the knowledge of the depths, heights, width and breadth of God’s loving kindness and grace.  Listening to some of the teaching coming from The Episcopal Church in our day one would quickly come to the conclusion that Christ’s death was meaningless and of no consequence or comfort to our world today.  Our sin is meaningless under such teaching.

That is eternally tragic.

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Our congregation had a recent discussion about church membership during a quarterly business meeting.  Discussion may be understating the case, it was fairly heated at points.

The presenting issue was presenting people to the church and then having the congregation vote on them for membership.  A former pastor in the congregation pointed out that he has seen this happen several times in our midst and always wondered what basis this has in Scripture.  He couldn’t find any and I have to agree with him.

So when it was brought up, I mentioned my agreement with his viewpoint so the whole congregation could know where I stood on the issue.  My concern is setting our membership process up so that it looks like we have higher standards for joining the church than the broader church of Jesus Christ.

The issue for me is not having members recorded in a local church, but how they are brought in.  If we could vote “No” to someone who is baptized and can give testimony to their faith in Jesus Christ and desire to be a member in this congregation, even with a letter of transfer from an overseas church, are we not setting ourselves up to be like the Pharisees in Matthew 23 who run to put burdens on the backs of converts?

This church is congregational in government and has four elders who spoke up as well to defend the practice.  This had come up in a meeting with the elders a few days earlier and they were not happy.  The defense of the practice of voting up or down on new members centers on statues, bylaws and governmental regulations for organizations.  It was also pointed out that the missionaries who planted the church 35 years brought this with them when they came to the island and planted this church.

This will be an unhappy period in this congregation as it faces down what it means to be the church locally and a part of the wider Church, the body of Christ.  There will be a lot of issues in play, including, are others in different churches and with different theologies from ours, actually people whom we will meet in heaven or not; as well as how to set standards for membership without losing the grace we have all received from Jesus Christ.  It will also indirectly affect how leaders are developed within the congregation.  This will be bigger than any of us imagines.

Pray for us.

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I say, then, in the first place, that a scriptural view of sin is one of the best antidotes to that vague, dim, misty, hazy kind of theology which is so painfully current in the present age. It is vain to shut our eyes to the fact that there is a vast quantity of so-called Christianity nowadays which you cannot declare positively unsound, but which, nevertheless, is not full measure, good weight and sixteen ounces to the pound. It is a Christianity in which there is undeniably ‘something about Christ and something about grace and something about faith and something about repentance and something about holiness’, but it is not the real ‘thing as it is’ in the Bible. Things are out of place and out of proportion. As old Latimer would have said, it is a kind of ‘mingle-mangle’, and does no good. It neither exercises influence on daily conduct, nor comforts in life, nor gives peace in death; and those who hold it often awake too late to find that they have got nothing solid under their feet. Now I believe the likliest way to cure and mend this defective kind of religion is to bring forward more prominently the old scriptural truth about the sinfulness of sin. People will never set their faces decidedly towards heaven and live like pilgrims, until they really feel they are in danger of hell…Let us bring the law to the front and press it upon men’s attention. let us expound the Ten Commandments and show the length and breadth and depth and height of their requirements. This is the way of our Lord in the sermon on the mount. we cannot do better than follow His plan. We may depend upon it, men will never come to Jesus and stay with Jesus and live for Jesus, unless they really know why they are to come and what is their need. Those whom the Spirit draws to Jesus are those whome the Spirit has convinced of sin. without thorough conviction of sin, men may seem to come to Jesus and follow Him for a season, but they will soon fall away and return to the world. – J.C. Ryle
From Holiness, chapter 1

I sure wish they knew how to use the journalist’s paragraph back then. Two-three sentences and then a new paragraph.

But I think the good bishop has put his finger right on the issue of Christianity at the beginning of the 21st century. We are so afraid of offending our friends and family, not to mention those who listen to us, that we have watered down the real issue in coming to faith in Christ.

Not that we should beat people over the heads with sin and dangle them over the flames of hell, but we should not be afraid to step up and note sin when it happens and be willing to name it when we see it. It is hard to offer grace and mercy when the reason it is needed is belittled. Sin is real. Let’s call it for what it is using the Bible’s standards as our definitions.

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