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.


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


“For my sin’s sake…for His Son’s sake.”

Consider these gems from Thomas Playfere, an English churchman who taught at Cambridge around 1600:

“He that remembers his virtues hath no virtues to remember, seeing he wants humility, which is the mother virtue of all virtues. For this is the difference between the godly and the wicked: both remember virtues, but the godly remember other men’s virtues, the wicked remember their own.”

“Nay, I cannot hold my heart for my joy; yea, I cannot hold my joy for my heart; to think that He which is my Lord is become my Father, and so that He which was offended with me for my sin’s sake, is now reconciled to me for His Son’s sake.”

Both quotations were made by John Brown in Puritan Preaching in England (edited by C. Matthew McMahon), an edifying and challenging overview of English preaching through the centuries. It’s been good for my soul, and I gladly recommend it.

“Deeply Wounded.” Personal Tragedy and Gospel Advance

A recurring theme in the lives of those whom God has used in exceptional ways is exceptional suffering. Often, the Lord has used deep disappointment to direct His servants away from their own plans and to propel them into strategic ministries:

  • David Brainerd‘s expulsion from Yale released him from normal ministry in Connecticut (which became impossible without his degree) and prepared the way for him to take the gospel to the unreached Indians of modern-day New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
  • J. C. Ryle was planning on a lifetime in Parliament, where he surely would have thrived. However, a financial collapse took his father’s considerable fortune (to which he was heir) in one crushing day. It forced him into the ministry, the only profession for which he was qualified.
  • Nate Saint had an inflammation of the osteomyelitis in his leg on the very night before he was to report for special military training that would have prepared him to use his flying skills in combat. That door closed, choking him with grief, but preparing him for his ministry in Ecuador with Missionary Aviation Fellowship.

For those of us who know “the rest of the story,” these life-changing blows are simply steps to greater usefulness. But for these men, they were devastating, both when they happened and for years afterwards. Ryle said his father’s bankruptcy came to his mind every day, even 30 years later:

“I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered and I had never been ruined, my life, of course, would have been a very different one. I should have probably gone into Parliament very soon and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul. I should have formed very different connections, and moved in an entirely different circle. I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached, written a tract or book. Perhaps I might have made shipwreck of spiritual things. So I do not mean to say at all, that I wish it to have been different to what it was. All I mean to say is that I was deeply wounded by my reverses, suffered deeply under them, and I do not think I have recovered in body and mind from the effect of them.” (Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle, pp. 37-38)

Of course, many choose to pursue the Christian ministry despite other compelling opportunities. C. T. Studd left a career in professional cricket to take the gospel to China, India, and Africa. William Borden left his family fortune to take the gospel to China. There are many similar examples. But the Lord has sometimes used personal tragedy to “shoehorn” people into ministries they wouldn’t otherwise have chosen, exercising the gracious prerogative described in Proverbs 16:9:

“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”

Feel free to chime in with other examples from church history. It’s healthy to remind ourselves of God’s goodness and sovereignty, especially in the midst of personal disappointments. Let these examples encourage you and build your faith!  Grace.

This Is What Prayer for Missions Looks Like

Nate Saint’s prayer for the Aucas (a savage people for whose conversion to Christianity he would ultimately sacrifice his life) is the finest missions prayer I’ve heard or read. I love its doxology, its soteriology, and its eschatology. Glorious. Just about unimprovable, when you consider how his life backed it up. Pray like this:

‎”May the praise be His, and may it be that some Auca, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, will be with us as we lift our voices in praise before His throne. Amen.” (Nate Saint, as recorded in Through Gates of Splendor)

Such a desire for God’s glory to abound through the conversion of the lost around the world—and their participation with us around the throne—is the heart behind the missions hymn For the Sake of His Name. Grace.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FzJYZbAVroI]

What I’m Reading: “God’s Wisdom in Proverbs”

Being a brainiac is good. Being a hard-working brainiac is better. Being a hard-working and eloquent brainiac? Mercy, that’s almost unfair. But that’s my friend, Dan Phillips.

I’ve enjoyed Dan’s witty and insightful writing at Pyromaniacs and Biblical Christianity. I was honored to be one of the final, blood-letting editors of his book The World-Tilting Gospel. (I blogged about it briefly here.) But I’ve not fully appreciated his diligence as a student or his eloquence as a writer until reading God’s Wisdom in Proverbs. It’s good. Exceptionally good. Here’s what I like, so far (about 100 pages in as of the time of writing):

  • He handles the genre of the book of Proverbs well. He explains what proverbs are—he describes a proverb as “an adage without paddage,” characterized by terseness, imagery, and parallelism. And he explains what proverbs aren’t—airtight promises, exhaustive treatises, or quick-and-easy thoughts to live by.
  • He handles the technicalities of the text well. This isn’t an easy book, though its challenging content is made more manageable by Dan’s keep-your-attention style and humor. Loaded with explanations of the original Hebrew, it will stretch pastors, and it might occasionally overwhelm people used to skim-the-cream, 100-page devotionals. But it’s well worth the effort. The amount of time Dan has spent researching is obvious. He’s worked through the Hebrew. He’s consulted the significant commentaries. He’s done a ton of behind-the-scenes work.
  • He demonstrates how the book of Proverbs fits with the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures, especially by showing that Solomon wasn’t only blessed with uncommon wisdom, but was also a student of the Word (see 1 Kings 2:1-4; Deuteronomy 17:18-19). Dan’s frequent allusions to the author and his historical setting shed new light on the book for me.
  • He relates the ancient wisdom of Proverbs to contemporary issues. He writes as a scholar, but occasionally his blogger flair surfaces with pointed, helpful applications to everyday life.
  • He shows that biblical wisdom grows from fellowship with God, especially by his thorough explanations of Proverbs 1:7, 9:10, and 31:30.
  • He relates the book of Proverbs to Christ, not through out-of-context leaps at the end of a chapter, but by showing how the gospel is woven into the book itself. He points the reader to Jesus skillfully, legitimately and repeatedly.

I’m enjoying this book immensely, and I’m glad to commend it to you. If you want to understand Proverbs better—and you should—this book will be a great asset to you. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of study by a dedicated student of Scripture. Color me impressed, and appreciative, Dan…er, (ahem) Mr. Phillips.


Two Books on Spiritual Warfare

This week I’ve read a couple short books on prayer and the church’s battle against Satanic forces. I can recommend one.

The first I read (which I don’t commend to you) is Paul E. Billheimer’s Destined for the Throne. It’s been an influential book over the last 25 years or so, especially among those with more charismatic leanings. I’ve actually been helped by it, secondhand, so I was eager to finally read it for myself. I was disappointed, and I don’t recommend it. In the Foreword, Billy Graham commends Billheimer for his “fresh interpretations.” That’s usually a bad sign. My marginal notes alternate between “Agree” and “Yikes” or “?” or “X”.

I’d describe the book as exquisite truth surrounded by exquisite error. At times, Billheimer is so very right about the power of prayer and the glory of Christ. But when he’s off, he’s really off. He views God as frustrated by the church’s prayerlessness and Satan’s opposition—desperately wanting to work, but unable. (One heading reads “God Is ‘Helpless’ Without a Man.”) He says the “balance of power” in the universe rests with the church. He sees prayer as “on the job training” for our coming reign (which apparently will include overcoming evil foes in eternity). He sees God essentially transferring His sovereignty to the church, even in matters of salvation. So if the church would pray as she should, she could guarantee the conversion of individuals—whether they want it or not. It’s an Arminianism that ends up with a church-driven irresistible grace. Strange. Along the way, Billheimer exalts the church to unbiblical heights, almost blurring the lines between the church and the Savior. He makes praise utilitarian (“It works!” seems to motivate praise more than “God is worthy!”). He says we, like Enoch, might walk so closely with God that we’re translated(!). He unfortunately ends up with a typical prosperity gospel:

“If we are held in bondage to demons of fear, sickness, disease, or limitation of any kind, it is only through ignorance of what Christ has done for us, or by forgetting who we are in Him.” (p. 91) [And TBN said, “Amen.”]

Far better is E. M. Bounds’ little book Winning the Invisible War. (My copy is a cheap paperback from the 80’s; I think the only way to obtain it now is to find it used.) Much of the book addresses the Bible’s description of Satan and his minions. Bounds avoids the sensationalism that too often accompanies the topic of spiritual warfare. But he also points out from Scripture after Scripture after Scripture (and there are more than you probably think) that the enemy of our soul is real and active.

Especially helpful, though a bit afield from the topic at hand, were chapter 5 (“Satan’s Main Target”) and chapter 6 (“Satan’s Subversion of the Church”). Both chapters remind the church of its unique responsibilities of holiness, evangelism, and discipleship. They call the church away from reliance on worldly treasures and means. I noted that portions of the book could have been ghost written by Dave Doran (warnings against distractions like social activism) or A. W. Tozer (warnings against debasing worship to accommodate our culture). Here’s an example of each:

“The Church is like the net cast into the sea. The purpose is not to change the sea but to catch the fishes out of the sea.” (p. 53)

“It is said we cannot get church people to attend distinctly spiritual meetings. What is the problem? Are the institutions worn out and no longer of value to the humble, pious soul? Who will dare affirm this? They say the desires of the people are low and perverted. Should we then change the methods to suit unsanctified appetites? No, instead let us tone up their appetites for spiritual things and elevate the tastes of our people.” (p. 58) [And Scott Aniol said, “Amen.”]

It’s a sobering, inspiring read. In fact, I so profited from it that I’ve ordered (or, rather, scrounged up) copies for my fellow leaders at TCBC. I commend it to you.

Tweet-Sized Thoughts on the Holy Spirit

I’ve been thinking much lately about the ministry of the Spirit, especially as it’s described by Jesus in John 14-16. Rather than writing a length article (I lack the time to write it, and you probably lack the time to read it), I offer the following short, punchy observations for your consideration:

1. The church should regard Pentecost as it regards the Incarnation. Both were world-shifting, life-changing, God-coming events.

2. It’s as impossible to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit as it is to become a Christian without Christ.

3. As our Paraklete, the Spirit of God is our Advocate on earth, just as the Son of God is our Advocate in heaven.

4. According to Jesus’ shocking statement in John 16:7, the Spirit’s earthly ministry is more advantageous to us than Christ’s. Wow.

5. The church has allowed abuses of the doctrine of the Spirit by some to make us negligent and even wary of His true, biblical works.

6. The mercies of God the Father and God the Son are mediated to the church through God the Spirit.

7. The church’s power to resist sin, reach the lost, apply the Scriptures, grow in Christlikeness, and minister effectively resides in the Spirit, not us. We are impotent without Him. (Yes, that was more than 140 characters.)

This paragraph from E. M. Bounds’ little book Winning the Invisible War (which I’ve enjoyed!) summarizes it well:

“The Church is distinctly, preeminently, and absolutely a spiritual institution. It is an institution created, vitalized, possessed, and directed by the Spirit of God. Her ministers and doctrines have appeal, relevance, and power only when they are channels of the Holy Spirit. It is His indwelling and inspiration which give the Church its divine character and accomplish its divine purposes” (p. 54).

If these things are true—and they are—what difference do they make in your Christian life? In your church?