What I’m Reading: REFORMATION by Carl Trueman


Using blog space to say “Trueman nailed it” is the e-equivalent of using cup space to say “Coffee is hot.” Obviously. Nevertheless, I’m glad to say that Carl Trueman’s collection of essays published as Reformation is a very worthwhile read. I expected it to be a helpful reminder of Reformation history and its relevance to ministry today, and it was. But it’s more practical and devotional than I expected. Trueman connects the dots between Reformation theology and modern pastoral ministry under three basic themes:

  • First, (especially in chapter 2, “Meeting the Man of Sorrows”) Trueman writes with conviction and warmth about the centrality of the cross. “God-centered sermons must by definition be Christ-centered sermons if they are to contain even a drop of grace,” he writes (p. 27). It is in the cross where we see God’s glory, and love, and holiness. But it’s also in the cross where we see God use  weakness and suffering for His glory. “Suffering and weakness are not just the way in which Christ triumphs and conquers; they are the way in which we are to triumph and conquer too” (p. 49). Trueman writes elsewhere, often, against the triumphalism of the modern church and the need for a godly view of suffering and lamentation. This is significant for a church that is comprised of weak, suffering people and is called to reach weak, suffering people.
  • Second (in chapter 3, “The Oracles of God”), Trueman gives a theological and practical discussion on the pastor’s responsibility to preach the Word. There is power in God’s inspired Word, both when it is printed and when it is preached. Thus, Trueman calls preachers to fervent, expository preaching which demonstrates a grasp of systematic and biblical theology. Such text-based preaching is vital in its own right, but also because it teaches people how to read their Bibles (as Dr. Mark Minnick consistently reminded us when I was in school). “As he preaches the Bible week by week,” Trueman writes, “[the pastor] is not simply bringing home the message of salvation on a Sunday but is equipping his people for reading, studying, and appropriating that message of salvation during the week” (pp. 96-97).
  • Finally (and unexpectedly, in chapter 4, “Blessed Assurance”), Trueman unpacks the Reformers’ understanding of assurance. I say this chapter was unexpected because it’s fairly obvious that the Reformers dealt with Christ (part 1) and the Word (part 2). But the issue of assurance was and continues to be a central difference between biblical Christianity and Roman Catholicism—the idea that based on Christ’s finished work we can know that our peace with God is certain and eternal (1 John 5:13). This is a vital doctrine. But it’s also extremely practical, for Bible preaching churches are filled with people who struggle with the issue of assurance of salvation. If you haven’t noticed, you’re either not approachable or not listening. It’s an excruciating struggle, and one for which shepherds must be equipped to help sheep. Trueman addresses the issue by pointing people away from subjective experience and toward objective truth about God and Christ. I do wish he had addressed the experiential “fruit” motif that is prominent in biblical discussions on assurance, as in 1 John. But his pointing us away from ourselves and to God is helpful. Pastors, listen to this challenge regarding the whole tenor of our pulpit ministries:

“In making preaching centre on God, on his saving acts and supremely on Christ, the preacher will automatically be creating an environment where the eyes of the congregation are drawn away from themselves, whether they be preoccupied with a morbid introspection or with an unhealthy excitement concerning their own experiences.”

The church needs leaders who will be relentless in biblical, God-exalting, Christ-centered preaching, and will thus “create an environment” in which people are more mindful of what God has done than what they have done.

This little book is an easy read (just over 100 pages), but very rewarding. It will be a huge help and encouragement to my pastor friends. It will engage your heart, your head, and your humor. Classic Trueman. I commend it to you.

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Related Tweet: “Theory: There is no Carl Trueman. D. A. Carson and Patrick McManus write articles together then use CT as a pseudonym.”

God, Help Me Be a Cork

I recently challenged the leaders at Tri-County Bible Church with the compelling contrast between Jonah 1 and Acts 27. In both situations, divided by the better part of a millennium, sailors find themselves at risk in a nerve-torturing tempest on the Mediterranean. Both times the terrified sailors jettison cargo (Jonah 1:5; Acts 27:18)—What good does money do on the bottom of the sea?! In both stories the sailors are part of a larger drama, one focused on the prophet Jonah and the other on the apostle Paul. Both circumstances appear to be hopeless, as the ships are tossed and nearly swallowed by the angry sea.

But there are great differences, as well. Whereas Jonah’s companions are in trouble because of his disobedience (Jonah 1:12), Paul’s are spared because of his obedience (Acts 27:21-24). Jonah’s shipmates were spared only when they severed themselves from him (Jonah 1:15); Paul’s only as they tethered themselves to him (Acts 27:30-32). Jonah was a millstone threatening to take his ship and its crew on a one-way trip to the fathoms below. Paul was a cork—the only reason why the battered ship was still afloat and its crew still alive. Jonah’s crew survived in spite of him; Paul’s survived because of him.

It occurs to me that the influence of spiritual leaders is deeper than we usually realize. Others may be blessed—and cursed—by our preaching, our counsel, our examples, our integrity. We can be a means of grace or a means of grief. I’m not denying that on our best days (as on Paul’s best day) we are unworthy of God’s blessing. Ultimately, it’s all grace, as both histories reveal. But I do long to be used of the Lord to keep my fellow unworthies afloat rather than a millstone dragging them under as the Lord chastens me. I want to be a grace-giving cork.

MacArthur on Burnout

Here’s an extremely helpful perspective on pastoral burnout and faulty expectations from John MacArthur:

“The very fact that I can stand here and open the Word of God and proclaim the glorious gospel of Christ is a mercy to an unworthy sinner. And the elevation of this is so staggering. The privilege is so overwhelming.

Here’s the good news. It wasn’t my strength that earned this right and it isn’t my weakness that forfeits it. It’s a mercy. I don’t deserve it. God gives it to me as a mercy. And in spite of my failures and my weakness, He continues to give me this mercy. And because I understand the ministry as a mercy, I don’t have a lot of expectations for what I’m able to accomplish. Can you get that thought?

I hear about pastors who have burn out. What are you talking about, burn out? What do you mean? Burn out has nothing to do with hard work. I never saw a plumber that got burn out. I never saw a ditch digger that burn out. It’s not about effort. Burn out is a thing that happens to people who don’t get their expectations met. ‘I deserve better than this, you can’t do this to me. Things aren’t working out. I shouldn’t be treated this way.’

Look, you don’t ever want to be treated the way you should be treated. God doesn’t even treat you the way you should be treated. People get burn out in ministry. They get warped. They get weary in well doing because they have unrealistic expectations of what they think they deserve because they’re qualified, because they’re prepared, because they work hard.

The truth is, every waking day of my life and your life that the Lord gives us the opportunity to proclaim His gospel, it was nothing but mercy. It is a mercy. And I will never get over the mercy of this.”‘

(HT: Ryan Shanahan)

Humble Leadership, Part 1

It’s amazing to me how consistently the New Testament warns those who are leaders against using their God-given authority in a demeaning and selfish way. Almost every time the NT epistles speak of submitting to authority they follow up that command with a warning against the tendency of leaders to be abuse authority. God “knows our frame” and thus hedges commands to submit graciously with commands to lead graciously. Despite the many examples of overbearing leadership we have all seen in various arenas, God puts a premium on gentle leadership—in the home, in the church, and in the workplace. Though I’m painfully aware of my own pride, I’d like to pursue the topic through a series of blog posts. For starters, let’s just look at the data. We’ll draw conclusions from it in later posts.

1.  God requires husbands to lead with humility.

Having established the need for wives to submit to their husbands in Ephesians 5:22-25, Colossians 3:18, and 1 Peter 3:1-6, Scripture warns husbands not to take advantage of their headship by exercising it abrasively: Continue reading

Ill-Used Illustrations

Quick rant here.

I recently heard a message from a church that has a well-deserved reputation for consistent biblical teaching. This message was different from the church’s norm, however, and it came at a particularly bad time. The pastor shared a human interest story, paused to tie elements of the story to the life of Christ, then continued with the story. By the time he was finished, the illustration hadn’t “shed light” on the Bible; it had replaced it.

I’m certainly not opposed to illustrations. Scripture is filled with them. They can have a variety of useful purposes. I started Sunday’s message on Paul’s self-identity as the chief of sinners by contrasting him with Victor Hugo’s character Claude Frollo. Frollo was a judgmental, arrogant bishop…and a lustful, murderous witch. The allusion to Frollo displayed how modern culture’s (sometimes accurate) portrayal of Christians as self-righteous hypocrites is flatly contradicted by the Scriptures. Good. But I spent the rest of the message explaining 1 Timothy 1:15, not The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The reality is, the best illustrations can often be given in a single sentence. A paragraph may be necessary at times. But if your illustration takes on a life of its own and takes a significant amount of time to tell, it’s probably shading the Truth rather than enlightening it. So be careful.

And one more thing. There’s something terribly wrong when both a preacher and a congregation are bright-eyed and attentive during his hilarious or gripping illustrations, then drowsy and distracted when he explains the Scriptures. If illustrations are used essentially as attention-keepers during otherwise boring messages, it speaks poorly of our view of God’s Word. Scripture itself is honey, not medicine that needs a spoonful of sugar to make it go down.

Pastor, resist the temptation to tell an engaging story with a few Scriptures pinned to it here and there. It’s a presumptuous thing. It’s a powerless thing. It’s a shirking of what is probably our greatest responsibility in Christian ministry. Preach the Word, not illustrations (2 Timothy 4:1-4).

“Do You Love Me? Feed My Lambs.”

John 21 serves almost as a post script to the great gospel. Christ’s atoning death and resurrection have already been recorded, and the evangelistic purpose of the book has been summarized in John 20:30-31. Rather than ending with a typical record of the Great Commission, however, John instead records for us a beautiful scene on the seaside during which Christ appears to the disciples, feeds them, and instructs them.

The text climaxes in the pointed yet gracious reinstatement of Peter in verses 15-17. It has often been observed that just as Peter denied Christ three times, Jesus questioned his love three times and commended him to ministry three times. There’s a gentle reproof in the reminder of Peter’s unfaithfulness and boasting: “Do you love me? Are you still claiming greater fidelity than these, your fellow disciples?” (Mark 14:29) Ouch. But there’s also great grace: “Peter, I’ll still use you. Feed my sheep.”

Beyond Jesus’ message of grace to Peter and Peter’s desperate appeal to Christ’s knowledge that his love, though imperfect, was sincere, John’s text contains some great lessons for pastoral ministry and the centrality of the local church.

Jesus gives a doxological motive to pastoral ministry. Our Lord unmistakably connects our love for Himself with our care for His church, insisting three times that our love for Him is evidenced chiefly by love for His sheep. Peter had tried to show His love for Jesus on his own terms: in boastful promises to fight to the death, in an audacious rebuke, in ambitious jousting with the other disciples for position, and even in hacking off a servant’s ear in a show of ill-advised aggression. His attempts to show his love were terribly flawed, as are so many of ours. Christ simplified things for him and for us. “Love Me? Feed my lambs.” This is instructive from both angles:

  • Our love for Christ must show itself in care for His flock.
  • Our care for Christ’s flock must be rooted in our love for Christ.

I delight to think on Jesus’ esteem for and protection of His church. To care for Christ’s sheep is to worship Christ, just as to oppress them is to persecute Christ (Acts 9:4). “Love me by loving mine.” What a great word even for those who aren’t called to be shepherds.

Jesus describes the doctrinal focus of pastoral ministry. Shepherds are commanded to care for His sheep in two specific ways—to “feed” and “tend” them. The verb Christ uses in the first and third commands (the Greek word bosko, vv. 15 and 17) is a general term for feeding. The undershepherd is a dietician. We nourish the church by giving out the Word, not our own opinions. And our ministry, though evangelistic, is focused primarily on caring for the church of Christ—sheep.

The second verb Christ uses (the Greek word poimaino, v. 16) is the term we more commonly associate with pastoring, or even translate as pastor. It still speaks of nourishment, but it includes other aspects of pastoral ministry as well. Diligent study and sound hermeneutics are necessary. However, preparing a biblically accurate sermon can become a mere “craft.” We can be perfectionistic about proper exposition while thinking little of the sheep we’re actually feeding. We’re preaching to needy people, for whom we should be praying and of whom we should be thinking as we study. And they need more than food. They need protection. They need leadership. They need encouragement. They need pastoral attention. Shepherds should smell like sheep.

Finally, Jesus highlights the gentle nature of pastoral ministry. There’s a tenderness required in pastoral ministry. (Notice the gentle characteristics required of elders in such passages as 1 Timothy 3:3 and 2 Timothy 2:24-26, for example.) Thus, Christ uses a diminutive term for His flock, especially in verse 15: “Feed my little lambs.” Peter was impulsive. He was a tough guy. But he needed to learn to nurture sheep rather than run over them. It’s a lesson he not only learned, but passed on in 1 Peter 5:1-4. Ministry is a tender thing, even for tough guys. Even when sheep are confused or in need of correction. And again, giving them gentle pastoral attention is worship.

The elders with whom I pastor Tri-County Bible Church meditated together on these great truths over the weekend. It was a rich time. By God’s grace, we hope to make John 21:15-17 a defining text for our ministry in this local assembly. Might we show our great love for our Lord by loving and caring for His flock. And might you do the same in your local church!

Accents Article: “Get Out of the Way”

The following article was written for the latest edition of Accents, SoundForth’s Choral Club publication. I post it here with SoundForth’s permission.

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Get Out of the Way

“Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory…” (Psalm 115:1)

We recently had a missionary candidate present his work and a sound philosophy of missions to our assembly. It was a challenging and instructive time in which the Lord used His Word to awaken us again to the needs of our godless world. When it was time to conclude the service, I transitioned by making a passing compliment of the missionary’s fashion sense—a joke, since we were wearing almost identical suits, shirts, and ties. People “got it” and laughed, and then I closed in prayer. No big deal.

But my conscience smote me. Why? I hadn’t told a dirty joke, and I hadn’t belittled anyone. I had, however, been a distraction from eternally important things. I had overtly caused people to stop thinking about the Scriptures and the cause of world evangelization to instead take note of their pastor’s wit. It was presumptuous of me. Continue reading