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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.”


The greatest of these is “Sola Scriptura”

Today Protestants around the world give thanks to God for the Reformation, the 16th-century movement which reclaimed the glorious doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone from the obscuring veils of Roman traditions. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther symbolized the heart of the Reformation by posting his 95 Theses in protest at the sale of indulgences by the Church. We summarize the Reformers’ convictions with 5 Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. All of them are precious, but I’d argue that the greatest of them is the first: Sola Scriptura. I elevate it not because it is inherently more significant than the others, but because it is the source of the others (and thus is referred to as “the formal principle of the Reformation”). If we don’t acknowledge the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God, we have no basis to determine the doctrine of salvation—or anything else.

I was struck again by this from an unlikely source a few years ago. Victor Hugo wrote the following historical commentary during one of the (rather frustrating) plot lapses in The Hunchback of Notre Dame:

“The sixteenth century shattered religious unity. Before printing, the Reformation would just have been a schism; printing made it a revolution. Take away the printing press and heresy is enervated [weakened, destroyed]. Be it fate or providence, Gutenberg was Luther’s precursor.”

What Hugo is highlighting is the importance of the printed word—indeed, of the printed Word! In God’s providence, the Reformation took place in a time when thought and religion had been freed by Gutenberg’s press. This was no coincidence. An unbending commitment to the Word started, informed, and spread the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s main contribution to the Reformation was his commitment to Scripture, stated often, but never more beautifully or boldly than in his defense at the Diet of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

“I am bound by the Scriptures.” Yes. “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Amen. That’s the Reformation in a nutshell. Indeed, it’s Christianity in a nutshell. Luther and the Reformers didn’t get everything right. They couldn’t have. But their role was like that of a good teacher—not to teach students every fact they will ever need to know, but to teach them how to learn. The Reformers reminded the church how to learn—how to think—by pointing us to the Scriptures and away from human authorities. That was their genius, built upon the genius of pre-Reformers like Wycliffe and Huss. Sola Scriptura!

There is no question that the great doctrines of the Reformation are under attack again today. Much of evangelicalism is “slouching towards Rome.” Our response, as ever, must be to tenaciously hold to the authority of the Scriptures. That’s not as simple as it seems, for there is ever the temptation to amend to the Word our own ideas. When the ideas are old, we call them “tradition.” When the ideas are new, we call them “contextualization.” Regardless of what extra-biblical ideas are called, we must not yield to them. We have a more sure word. We have an inspired Word. We have a sufficient Word. May we truly embrace it as our “only rule of faith and practice” as our creeds require. We can do no other. God help us.

“When we rely upon prayer…”

One of passages which most shapes my understanding of the ministry is Acts 6:1-7. Yes, it introduces us to the ministry of deacons and the importance of that ministry to the church. But it also introduces us—with devastating clarity—to the two-fold responsibility of those who shepherd Christ’s flock: “We will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Most pastors I know are very diligent in their “ministry of the Word.” Their consciences would smite them if they didn’t study well before they preach. Excellent. But I wonder if we’re as diligent in our ministry of prayer? I’m not, at least not as I ought to be. I tend to focus more on my speaking to men on behalf of God than on my speaking to God on behalf of men. It’s helpful to remind myself that prayer is at least as essential as preaching.

Pastor friends, study well. Exercise oversight well. But by all means, pray well. Consider these good words from A. C. Dixon:

“When we rely upon organization, we get what organization can do; when we rely upon education, we get what education can do; when we rely upon eloquence, we get what eloquence can do. And so on. But when we rely upon prayer, we get what God can do.” (quoted by Robert Hall Glover in The Bible Basis of Missions)

A New Chapter of Ministry Begins

Yesterday, after almost a year of praying and agonizing about what the Lord would have me do, I accepted the call to be the Senior Pastor of Killian Hill Baptist Church in Lilburn, Georgia, a community on the north side of Atlanta. It was a bittersweet day—bitter as I prepare to say goodbye to Tri-County Bible Church after 15 years together and sweet as I prepare to lead a body of believers in one of the world’s great cities. Please pray for me and my family, for TCBC, and for KHBC.

This wasn’t a decision I made lightly. I’ve shed many, many tears as I’ve contemplated the move. If you’ve not gone through a similar decision, you have no idea how excruciating it is. I anticipated spending my entire ministry at TCBC, and I was glad to do so. There is no problem to escape. On the contrary, things are going great. We have solid leaders in place. People are continuing to come to Christ and grow in Christlikeness. Our philosophy of ministry is sound. Our relationships are strong. We’re enjoying a new building after 12 years in a high school. Finances are fine. It’s a healthy, vibrant church, by God’s grace (Psalm 115:1). So why leave? Well, for a number of reasons (listed in no particular order):

  • First, I’ve been unsettled over the last year, wondering if the Lord had another task for me to perform. I waited it out, lest it was a temporary thing—a midlife crisis, or a letdown after the building project, or a funk, or burnout, or whatever. But the sense that it might be time to do something else lingered, even as I delighted in what God was teaching me and doing at TCBC.
  • Second, I objectively looked at my strengths and weaknesses, and where they could be maximized and minimized most effectively. I wanted to be a steward of my opportunities, responsibilities, and gifts.
  • Third, I prayed. And prayed. And prayed. I’ve never prayed so much about a matter in my life. It was my first and last waking thought: “Lord, want do you want me to do?”
  • Fourth, I considered the Scriptures. I rested in the call of God for pastors in Acts 20:28. The Holy Ghost makes our pastoral assignments—which is great to know. He’s more interested in this than I am. And He’s sovereign. I asked God to exercise veto power as described in Proverbs 16:9. I considered texts which focus ministry on urban and multi-ethnic areas in both Testaments (from my preaching on Jonah, to my writing on missions, to my reading of Acts and the epistles). I considered with great delight the multi-ethnic throng in Revelation 5:9-10, and I desired to be part of gathering such a diverse people.
  • Fifth, I sought counsel—from long-time friends, from ministry partners, from co-laborers at TCBC, from missionaries, from family members, and especially from my wife.
  • Sixth, I read. John Cionca’s book on pastoral transitions, Before You Move, was very helpful. Kevin DeYoung’s Just Do Something was liberating. A number of books about missions and risk-taking were troubling, albeit in a good way. Some Christian biographies talked about transitions that the Lord used for His glory. It seemed from what I read that there was a divine conspiracy to get me ready to go.
  • Seventh, I looked at the stability of TCBC, and specifically at the giftedness of Joe Tyrpak, our Assistant Pastor. For years I’ve labored to make the body sustainable should I die, or move, or (God forbid) fall. We’ve preached every-member ministry. We’ve decentralized leadership. We’ve taught that no one is essential to the local church but Christ. And all the while, Joe has grown as a preacher and pastor (as evidenced in this bold message on transitions in leadership, preached 3 weeks ago). He’s shepherded TCBC—including me—capably. He is as gifted and faithful a shepherd as I’ve ever known. I began to believe that although we work exceedingly well together (in fact, he’s among my best friends), our gifting and burdens are a bit redundant. It’s great working together, but there are so many needs and opportunities elsewhere. I believe he is more than ready to lead TCBC and that we should expand our influence. (By God’s grace, the transition is going well. We’ve worked on it for months, and Joe has been recommended as the next Senior Pastor of TCBC by a unanimous vote of our leaders. We vote on that change as an assembly next week, when I’ll begin serving as his Assistant Pastor through the end of 2012, Lord willing.)
  • Ultimately, having considered objective and subjective factors, having gone through a thorough vetting process, and having prayed relentlessly, I determined that the Lord was opening a door for a new phase of ministry. And so I moved forward. Yesterday, by God’s good leading and grace, the decision was made final, both by a strong vote at KHBC and by my acceptance of the call.

I’m excited about the work God has ahead for my family as we join the team at KHBC. I’m excited about their involvement in missions. I’m excited about their excellent Christian School, particularly their open enrollment policy that allows them to minister to a staggering breadth of families from every corner of the globe. I’m excited about their faithful, complementary leadership. I’m excited about their committed, sacrificial members. I’m excited about their stability (the last time they had a pastoral transition I was 8 years old!) and commitment to the Scriptures. And I’m excited to see the Lord transplant a bit of TCBC’s heart for evangelism and discipleship into a sister ministry. I’m confident that the result of the move will be a net gain as the Lord works in both churches for His greater glory.

I’m also excited about TCBC’s future. I love this body of believers, and in a sense, Madison will always be home. As I preached yesterday, I find great hope in Philippians 1:6. Though it has individual implications (and that’s how we generally use it), it was written to a local church and its leaders (1:1). Paul, the church planter rejoiced in what God had done “from the first day” (1:5), was continuing to do “until now” (1:5), and would continue to do “until the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). In reality, Christ started the church in Philippi (as recorded in Acts 16) and wouldn’t stop His work until it was finished.

The church is Christ’s. He owns it. He builds it. He rules it. And He expands it. I’m eager to see that happen, both in Ohio and Georgia, and around the world. Pray for us. Grace!

Gospel-Centered Ambition

John 15 is a glorious passage. It depicts our Savior as the life-giving, fruit-giving, joy-giving Vine (vv. 1, 5, 11). It urges us to be vitally connected to Him and warns us that we can do nothing without Him (vv. 4-5)—a simultaneously terrifying and hope-giving thought. It contrasts true Christians with false (vv. 2, 6). It challenges us with basic Christian duties: we must know and obey Christ’s Word and to respond to it with prayer (vv. 7, 10, 16). It commands us to respond to Christ’s voluntary and vicarious death by loving one another (vv. 12-17). All the while, it points us repeatedly to the concept of spiritual fruit (vv. 2, 4, 5, 8, 16).

I’ve especially been struck by the gospel-centered ambition of the passage—that whereas every genuine Christian bears spiritual fruit (v. 2a), God works in us that we might bear “more fruit” (v. 2b), and Christ longs that we might bear “much fruit” (vv. 5, 8). I love that. Fruit…more fruit…much fruit, all for God’s glory. There is inherent in the life of the Christian and the church what I call a content ambition, or perhaps an ambitious contentment. We are to rejoice in our current circumstances, whatever they may be (Philippians 4:11-13). We’re content. But we’re never spiritually satisfied. We are ever striving for more–to progress in Christlikeness, to evidence more fruit of the Spirit, to be more faithful in prayer, more effective in evangelism, more useful for our Savior. Christians have an insatiable appetite for God’s greater glory, or at least we should.

I’ll close by quoting men who have described this gospel-centered ambition more eloquently than I can. Grace!

“Beloved, there is the ambition and hope before us of doing something in the way of glorifying God by bringing forth the fruits of holiness, peace, and love…. We are not condemned to inaction; we are not denied the joy of service, the superior blessedness of giving and of doing: the Lord hath chosen us and ordained us to go and bring forth fruit, fruit that shall  remain. This is the aspiration which rises in our soul; the Lord grant that we may see it take actual form in our lives.” (C. H. Spurgeon, preaching on John 15)

“We need an ambition that won’t rest until more people are reached, more churches planted, more marriages helped, more art created, more enterprises started, more disciples made. We need an ambition that lives joyfully today but wants more for God and more from God tomorrow.” (Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition, 209)

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?

Infighting. As if we don’t have enough problems.

We’d understand the nature of Christianity better if we’d remember that much of the New Testament was written from prison. Hardship is a reality for Christians. That’s one of Paul’s points in the book of Philippians, which he wrote to a fearful and divided church. “Conflict is inevitable. But it doesn’t make sense to compound it by fighting each other, as if we don’t have enough problems.” Read the book in one sitting and see if you’re not impressed with these themes:

1. Conflict from those outside the church is normal and productive.

Suffering was in the DNA of the Philippian church. Paul founded it from prison, or at least pretty close (Acts 16:19-24). Years later, Paul wrote this epistle to them from another prison (Philippians 1:7, 12-18). Continue reading