A Bee-line to the Cross

I am in the process of working my way through a book by Michael Horton (of White Horse Inn fame) entitled, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church and I came across this important paragraph:

We need the law and the gospel, but each does different things. When we confuse law and gospel, we avoid both the trauma of God’s holiness and the liberating power of his grace. We begin to speak about living the gospel, doing the gospel, even being the gospel, as if the Good News were a message about us and our works instead of about Christ and his works. The proper response is neither to dispense with the law nor to soften it from demand to helpful advice. Rather, it is to recognize the difference between law and gospel. We are not called to live the gospel but to believe the gospel and to follow the law in view of God’s mercies. Turning the gospel into law is a very easy thing for us to do; it comes naturally. That is why we can never take the Good News for granted. (P. 124)

While the law is very important in the Christian’s life for it shows us those things that “are pleasing in his sight,” and it commands us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” we must never allow our preaching to sink to the level of simply crying out, “Try harder!” No, we are also commanded to preach the Good News that we are to be “found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”  

Thus, our preaching should include the divine imperatives of the text of Scripture, but we would be wise to also follow Charles Spurgeon’s description of his own preaching, “I take my text and make a bee-line to the cross,” for it is in Christ that “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7)

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Doctrine Matters

In my past I had often said that “I was Southern Baptist born, Southern Baptist bred, and that one day I would be Southern Baptist dead.” (I suppose that two out of three isn’t too bad.) In 2005 I became a member of a church that was a part of the Presbyterian Church in America (http://www.pcanet.org/), and in 2006 was graciously called to be the Associate Pastor at Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC) in Beaumont, Texas (http://www.rpcbmt.org/). I must admit that I have never been happier in my life (Although my wife accuses me of saying that every morning when I wake up)!

Although the PCA has its issues, as all denominations do, one of the things that I have always appreciated about it, is the importance we place on doctrine. When RPC began to consider calling me to be a teaching elder, I had to jump through many hoops before my ordination would be considered “kosher.” I took written examinations on Bible content, theology, the Sacraments, Church history, the history of the PCA, and the Book of Church Order. Thankfully, the Book of Church Order states that “a Presbytery may accept a seminary degree which includes study in the original languages in lieu of an oral examination in the original languages” (I would shudder to think of taking a Hebrew exam at my age!). I was also examined on my “acquaintance with experiential religion, especially [my] personal character and family management (based on the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, and Titus 1:6-9).” Then, I was scrutinized orally by the Presbytery’s Candidates and Credentials Committee for a couple of hours (or longer) and finally had to answer questions on the floor of the Presbytery.

 It is important for me to make the following statement so that everyone can understand my motives in recounting all of these examinations: I have written all of this, not as a complaint, but as a complement! A pastor should never be chosen in order to “attract young families to a congregation,” or because he “relates well to people,” or “tells great stories in the pulpit.” The church office of “pastor” is too important for such considerations! A pastor should be chosen because he is called of God for the task, and loves and can communicate the truth of God’s Word to God’s people. Yes, it helps to be able to relate to people, but the primary means by which Christ grows His church is through the preaching of the Word of God in the power of His Spirit. This is why at one’s ordination the following vows are taken: 

1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?

2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?

3. Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity?

4. Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?

5. Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to seek the office of the holy ministry from love to God and a sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son?

6. Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?

7. Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you overseer?

8. Are you now willing to take the charge of this church, agreeable to your declaration when accepting their call? And do you, relying upon God for strength, promise to discharge to it the duties of a pastor?

May we always take seriously the duty of choosing only men sound in the faith to be pastors in Christ’s church, because DOCTRINE MATTERS!

The Written Word of God

The Read-through-the-Bible plan that I follow is based upon the plan created by Robert Murray McCheyne during the 19th century. In following this plan, one will read through the Old Testament once, and through the New Testament and Psalms twice in one year. Each day’s reading consists of two passages from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from either the Psalms or the Gospels. I actually use a website which has audio, so I can listen while I read (which helps an older guy keep his focus) which is found at: http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/devotions/one.year.tract/.

Today’s reading included a quote from the Old Testament prophet, Balaam. Granted, Balaam had his issues, and was eventually used by the “seed of the serpent” to lead Israel into sin. However, he said something to King Balak which included a wise principle that should be foundational in the life of all Christians. He declared in Numbers 24:13 that “if Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak.” What a profound standard by which to live! Instead of running to and fro looking for some new understanding, or searching inside of us for some “spiritual nudging or guidance” from the Lord, we simply look to the sure and certain Word that God has given to us.

Peter, after describing the glorious experience of hearing God speak audibly on the Mount of Transfiguration, wrote that we have “something more sure, the prophetic word.” (2 Peter 1:19) Never let your experience be your spiritual guide because as someone wisely opined, “Believe only half of what you see, and nothing of what you hear.” Instead, rest in the final Word that God passed down to us, written in pen and ink for the benefit of our souls: the Holy Scriptures.

John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898)

I was doing some reading over at the Presbyterian Church in America Historical Center (www.pcahistory.org) and found a short biography of John Lafayette Girardeau written by Dr. C. N. Wilborn. Girardeau was a long time pastor and educator in the Southern Presbyterian Church during the 19th century. Christians in the ante-bellum South have been so demonized by moderns that I thought sharing his bio might shed some light on the “rest of the story.” I will just allow Dr. Wilborn’s pen to tell the story:

“In January 1854, he [Girardeau] and his wife Penelope Sarah (“Sal”) moved from St. John Parish and Wilton Presbyterian Church (January 1849-December 53) to Charleston to assume the work begun by John B. Adger and the session of Second Presbyterian Church. The work was designed to establish a church for and of the slaves. In 1850, citizens of Charleston built a meeting house on Anson Street for the exclusive use of the slaves. After Adger’s health failed, Girardeau was handpicked by Adger and Smyth to lead the work forward. The work expanded from thirty-six black members when Girardeau arrived to over 600 at the time of the American Armageddon. He preached to over 1,500 weekly from 1859 through 1861.

“In 1858/59 the Anson Street Mission experienced a marvelous revival and in April 1859 they moved into a new building at the prestigious and prime intersection of Meeting and Calhoun Streets. The black membership was given the privilege of naming their church (which was particularized in 1858) and they chose “Zion.” Zion Presbyterian Church became famous for Girardeau’s preaching-he was called “the Spurgeon of America”-, but it was also noteworthy for its diaconal ministry in the community, catechetical training of hundreds in the city, sewing clubs for the women, and missionary activity. The outreach and influence of Zion was of such public notoriety that Girardeau and the session were often criticized and sometimes physically threatened. For example, the catechetical training and teaching of hymns and psalms was so effective that some Charlestonians believed Girardeau was teaching the slaves to read for themselves (which was contrary to state law).

“After the War and before Girardeau could return to Charleston, a number of freedmen of Zion Presbyterian Church beckoned Girardeau to return to “the Holy City” and resume his work with them. They desired to have their white pastor whom they knew, loved, and respected, rather than a black missionary from the North. Throughout the post-War and Reconstruction years, he arduously worked amongst both black and white in Charleston. He mightily labored within the Southern Presbyterian Church to see that the freedmen were included in the church and in 1869 he nominated seven freedmen for the office of ruling elder in Zion Presbyterian Church, preached the ordination service, and with the white members of his session laid hands on his black brothers.”

“Unfortunately, the pressures of Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the hardened positions of notables like B. M. Palmer and R. L. Dabney brought the church to a pivotal moment. The weight of political and social issues eventuated in “organic separation” of white membership and black membership and the formation of churches along the color line. Girardeau alone dissented against the resolution at the 1874 General Assembly in Columbus, Mississippi, for which he served as Moderator.”

Although the last paragraph reminds us of the social pressures that sadly separated the Presbyterian churches into black churches and white churches during the post-war period, it was a blessing to see someone who understood that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) (The entire biography can be found at http://www.pcahistory.org/periodicals/spr/bios/girardeau.html.)

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat

It was May 13, 1940, and Sir Winston Churchill had just replaced Neville Chamberlain as the Prime Minister of Great Britain as war loomed over Europe. In his first speech to the House of Commons he uttered these famous words:

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many long months of toil and struggle.
You ask what is our policy. I will say, it is to wage war with all our might, with all the strength that God can give us, to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.
You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory there is no survival.”

These words seem strange to our ears today. We live in a world where sacrifice is defined as having to wait in traffic, or having the cable TV go on the blink for an hour or two. Our desire for a life of ease is reinforced by TV evangelists that tell us that there is “a conqueror inside of us” and if we only believe, sickness can be banished, and poverty eliminated (if we send a “seed” offering to their ministry, of course). However, this seems far removed from the battle scene described by Paul:

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.  8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Yes, life is full of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” as we battle “the world, the flesh and the Devil,” but it is also true that Christ said, “in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Wise Words from Charles Spurgeon

In John Piper’s short biography of Charles Spurgeon, he includes a comment made by the articulate preacher describing the many sufferings he had to undergo in during his life:

It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.

My life has had its share of seemingly endless nights, tears shed, and concern for my own future and the future of those I love, but in the midst of those dark times it was comforting to know that God was not a helpless onlooker in heaven, but One who “from all eternity, has, for his own glory, unchangeably foreordained whatsoever comes to pass in time, especially concerning angels and men.” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 12) In other words, God has measured out my troubles for my spiritual good in the same way as a loving, caring pharmacist would measure out exactly the mix of medicine that I would need for my physical well-being.

The difficulties in my life are not random events, but have all been lovingly decreed by a Sovereign Lord who will accomplish both His eternal glory, and my eternal good, through the temporary struggles I face on “this terrestrial ball.” This knowledge does not eliminate the pain experienced, but it does give courage to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” (Phil. 3:14) because every tear, every pain, every burden is not meaningless, but has eternal purpose.

Thank You, Francis Schaeffer

I discovered to my amazement that on May 15th it will have been 25 years since Francis Schaeffer “was made perfect in holiness” and “immediately passed into glory.” Justin Taylor’s blog has an interview with Os Guinness discussing the impact and significance of Schaeffer’s life at http://theologica.blogspot.com/2009/05/interview-with-os-guinness-on-25th.html.

Schaeffer’s writing style never appealed to me (I am not sure how many times I started reading The God Who is There to set it down without finishing it), but I found myself mesmerized by the little guy in knickers talking about God and culture in his film series, How Then Should We Live? He was a champion of the “true truth” of Scripture that many in our post-modern world need to rediscover. During a time in a young seminary student’s life, when neo-Orthodoxy was calling seductively, Schaeffer reminded him that there was a God who was there, and that He was not silent. I will be forever grateful to the founder of L’Abri for the impact he had on my life. I will close by letting Schaeffer speak for himself:

Third, not only can God act into the world, but He is not silent; He has spoken to men in the historic, space-time situation. The Bible and Christ in His office of prophet have given a propositional, verbalized communication to men that is true about God, true about history, and true about the cosmos. This should not take us by surprise, for if God has made man in His own image and has made us so that we can verbalize facts propositionally to each other on a horizontal level of communication, then it is natural that the infinite God who is personal would also communicate vertically to man in the same way. Of course, we must be careful to make a distinction here. Although God has not given us exhaustive knowledge (only He is infinite), He has given us true knowledge (what I have often called true truth)—true knowledge about Himself, about history, and about the cosmos.” (The Church Before the Watching World: A Practical Ecclesiology)

Ask the Doctor

A friend of mine sent me this email (Thanks, Austin), so I thought that I would pass it on to you. I have a new hero in the health/fitness arena.

 

 Ask the Doctor…

 

 Q: I’ve heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life; is this true?

 A: Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that’s it…don’t waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart will not make you live longer; that’s like saying you can extend the life of your car by driving it faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap.

 

 Q: Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruits and vegetables?

 A: You must grasp logistical efficiencies. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So a steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism of delivering vegetables to your system. Need grain? Eat chicken. Beef is also a good source of field grass (green leafy vegetables). And a pork chop can give you 100% of your recommended daily allowance of vegetable products.

 

 Q: Should I reduce my alcohol intake?

 A: No, not at all. Wine is made from fruit. Brandy is distilled wine; that means they take the water out of the fruity bit so you get even more of the goodness that way. Beer is also made out of grain. Bottoms up!

 

 Q: How can I calculate my body/fat ratio?

 A: Well, if you have a body and you have fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc.

 

 Q: What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program?

 A: Can’t think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: No Pain…Good!

 

 Q: Aren’t fried foods bad for you?

 A: YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!!!…Foods are fried these days in vegetable oil. In fact, they’re permeated in it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?

 

 Q: Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle?

 A: Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach.

 

 Q: Is chocolate bad for me?

 A: Are you crazy? HELLO…Cocoa beans! Another vegetable!!! It’s the best feel-good food around!

 

 Q: Is swimming good for your figure?

 A: If swimming is good for your figure, explain whales to me.

 

 Q: Is getting in-shape important for my lifestyle?

 A: Hey! “Round is a shape!”

 

 Well, I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about food and diets. One last word…

 1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

 2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

 3. The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

 4. The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

 5. The Germans drink a lot of beer and eat lost of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

 Conclusion: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.

 

Bon Appetit!

“See, the Sun Still Came Up”

I remember the moment very well. It was the morning after Bill Clinton had been elected President of the United States for the first time, and I was so disgusted that my fellow citizens had elected a man whose essence of morality would not fill a thimble (my opinion). I was at the church office before sunrise in order to get some studying done before all the other staff arrived, and in walked one of my deacons. Johnny Ray Smith was one of those deacons who understood that a deacon was a minister to the hurting and, although he was significantly older than I, had become one of my best friends during that period of my life. Knowing my frame of mind, he said, “Clifton, come with me. I have something I want to show you.” He took me outside and pointed to the eastern horizon where the morning sun had just arisen and said quietly, “See, the sun still came up.” 

I must admit that he had just taught me a very important lesson in life: God is sovereign and life will go on. In our world filled with evil, pain, and tragedy, I am comforted by the fact that God is not in heaven ringing His hands trying to decide what to do next. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us: 

It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when He blows on them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. (Isaiah 40:22-24) 

And if the most powerful people in the entire world are under God’s control, what have I to fear? Our Sovereign Lord truly “causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) This does not make our lives free from pain, sorrow, and uncertainty during our journey through this life, but it does remind us that everything that touches us, touches us with an eternal purpose that will bring glory to God, and eternal good to our lives.

So when anxiety begins to weigh you down, and you are not sure about your future; get up early, look to the east, and remember the words of Johnny Ray Smith, “See, the sun still came up.”