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February 02, 2008

Last Saturday I shared a prayer for the Lord’s Day Eve. Like that one, today’s prayer is also drawn from that collection of Puritan prayers The Valley of Vision. This prayer is meant for the Lord’s Day and is a perfect way to begin Sunday looking to the Lord of that day.

O Lord, My Lord,

This is thy day,
the heavenly ordinance of rest,
the open door of worship,
the record of Jesus’ resurrection,
the seal of the sabbath to come,
the day when saints militant and triumphant unite in endless song.

I bless thee for the throne of grace,
that here free favour reigns;
that open access to it is through the blood of Jesus;
that the veil is torn aside and I can enter
the holiest
and find thee ready to hear;
waiting to be gracious,
inviting me to pour out my needs,
encouraging my desires,
promising to give more than I ask or think.

But while I bless thee, shame and confusion are mine:
I remember my past misuse of sacred things,
my irreverent worship,
my base ingratitude,
my cold, dull praise.
Sprinkle all my past sabbaths with the cleansing blood of Jesus,
and may this day witness deep improvement in me.

Give me in rich abundance the blessings the Lord’s Day was designed to impart;
May my heart be fast bound against worldly thoughts or cares;
Flood my mind with peace beyond understanding;
may my meditations be sweet,
my acts of worship life, liberty, joy,
my drink the streams that flow from thy throne,
my food the precious Word,
my defence the shield of faith,
and may my heart be more knit to Jesus.

January 28, 2008

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’”

The twenty-third chapter of Jeremiah falls near the halfway point of the book, in the midst of a section where the prophet is foretelling the end of the Davidic dynasty and the coming captivity of God’s people. In this particular chapter, Jeremiah pronounces judgments against the false prophets who had become a plague within the nation. While these words were spoken some 600 years before Christ and in a particular context, his words ring as true today as they did then. “They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (16, 17).

How can these words fail to remind us of the false prophets who plague the church even in the twenty-first century? So many men and women today speak visions of their own minds, and teach what has so evidently not come from the mouth of the Lord. So many say that it shall be well with people who in reality are destined to suffer eternal torment for their hatred of God. They seek to show from Scripture that Christ will save those even who have never heard His Word, and who have never humbled themselves before the Lord. They say, “It shall be well with you” to those who sit in the pews but have never had their hearts of ice melted by the Lord. They speak lies and blasphemies, all the while pretending to the speak for the Lord.

The next verse, verse eighteen, teaches us how to choose good and noble teachers of the Word. If only we could master this simple piece of wisdom the church would be revitalized!

“For who among them has stood in the council of the Lord
to see and to hear his word,
or who has paid attention to his word and listened?”

What wisdom there is in this verse! It cuts to the heart of the difference between leaders who are godly and leaders who are only godly in pretense. A godly leader is one who has not only stood in the council of the Lord, and has thus seen and heard His Word, but one who has paid attention and listened. He has listened not just with his ears, but with his heart. Many of the most popular leaders can appear godly, for they can quote the Bible at will and can discuss Christian doctrine with the best of them. Yet what lacks is humility—true humility. True humility, the humility we learn about in the Bible and the humility God requires of us, is a submission to God and a submission to the Scriptures as He has given them to us. Leaders that honor God are those who are humble before God, not only hearing, but listening and applying. They are leaders who humble themselves before this book, knowing and believing that it is perfect and good and sufficient. They know that all they can offer is this book. No wisdom arising from their own minds can truly bring help to a needy soul. They know that all they can offer is what God provides.

Hear the Word of the Lord as he provides an indictment of the false prophets, who claimed to speak for Him, but in reality, spoke only their own folly (verses 21 and 22):

“I did not send the prophets,
yet they ran;
I did not speak to them,
yet they prophesied.
But if they had stood in my council,
then they would have proclaimed my words to my people,
and they would have turned them from their evil way,
and from the evil of their deeds.”

Here we see another mark of false teachers. The false prophets ran to prophecy with boldness and that was not characteristic of the difficulty and gravity that accompanied true prophecy. And as we saw in the previous verses, these false prophets had not listened to the Word of the Lord. Had they been attentive to the Lord, they would have proclaimed the Truth of God to the people, who would have turned from their evil ways. But instead the prophets tickled the peoples’ ears, telling them only what they wanted to hear. They told the people that God was not angry with them, and that it would go well with them. They told them this despite open rebellion against God.

Does this not sound suspiciously similar to the warning Paul gave Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

The time is coming and has clearly now come. In fact, it seems that this has been the refuge of sinners since the dawn of time. When people are in rebellion against God, they gather for themselves teachers who will condone their sinful lifestyles instead of condemn them in the name of the Lord. We might think back to the false prophets and even to Aaron, the brother of Moses, who constructed the golden calf. We might think of so many teachers in our day who say little more than what the people in the pews demand to hear. This is not preaching that condemns ungodly lifestyles and pleads with men to turn from their selfish ways. Instead, it is preaching to the choir—preaching that may stir the mind or the emotions, but preaching that is devoid of the Spirit and His power to truly pierce the heart and the conscience. Even when in rebellion against God people wish to feel like they have heard from Him and they wish to know that He still loves and supports them. So in their rebellion they find rebellious teachers to condone rather than condemn.

Look now to verses 23-32. It is a natural temptation to pass over the words of Scripture and read only the commentary. Please do not do that. Read the Word of God.

Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal? Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the Lord. Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces? Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the Lord, who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.

The Word of the Lord is powerful. It is the most powerful tool in the Christian’s arsenal. The Lord, through the mouth of his prophet, compares it to fire that consumes and to a hammer that can smash great rocks into pieces. Later on in Scripture we see that the Word of the Lord can do more than break rocks; God’s Word can soften a hardened heart and breathe life into death. False teachers pretend to speak forth this all-powerful Word, yet they speak only their own dreams and the interpretations of their sinful hearts. God hates these words. He hates those who blaspheme His name saying “declares the Lord” or “This is the Word of the Lord” or “The Bible says” or “God says” when in reality they are declaring nothing more than their own depravity and their own hatred of their Maker. God is against these people for they do not profit His children. They lead them astray, they confuse them, and they make a mockery of God.

“Let him who has my word speak my word faithfully.” And here is the charge for those who would speak for the Lord. What an awesome responsibility it is to have the Word of God. We have it in a way that is unprecedented in history. What wouldn’t the men and women of the Bible give to have the complete revelation of God as we do today? Let those who study this word and who step into the pulpits of our churches speak that word faithfully. Let them declare only what the Lord declares and to do so boldly, powerfully, but always humbly.

In his book The Roman Catholic Controversy, James White recounts the first time he had the privilege of filling the pulpit at his church.

My pastor takes preaching seriously. He views it as a privilege and a high calling to stand before the people of God to open the Word of God. I well remember the first time I filled the pulpit in our congregation. When we met in the pastor’s office prior to the service he asked, “Are you scared?” “Yes, a bit,” I replied. “Good,” he said. “It is an awesome thing to preach the Word of God to God’s people.” Then, as we went into the service, he said to me, “Play the man, Mr. Ridley.”

The pastor’s words were a reference to the words Hugh Latimer spoke to Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London, as they went to the stake to be martyred under the reign of Queen Mary. Such is the gravity that ought to accompany the Word of God. Few in our day have such a sense of gravity. But oh, what a great thing it is to approach the task of speaking for the Lord with such an attitude of gravity and humble dependence.

Turn back to the first verse of this chapter. “’Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord.” Surely the Lord will hold those in positions of teaching and authority doubly-responsible for being true to His Word. To the false prophets of Jeremiah’s day, and surely to the false teachers of our day, God says, “I am against [those] who use their tongues and declare, ‘declares the Lord.’ Behold I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the Lord, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the Lord.”

And so I challenge you to choose your teachers with the utmost of care! Examine those who stand in the pulpit and those whose books you read. Choose to place yourself under the teaching of those who are humble before the Word of God and who treat it with gravity and respect. Give your attention to those who have stood in the council of the Lord to see and to hear His Word, and who have paid attention to the Word and listened—truly listened.

January 26, 2008

In the tradition I grew up in, Saturday was considered a prelude to Sunday. It was a day of preparation for the Lord’s Day to come. I recently read a biography of theologian John Murray and enjoyed reading about how he understood the day in the same way (which makes good sense since he was also Presbyterian). Saturday evenings, in particular, were to be set aside for Sunday preparation. It reminded me of my youth.

In reading The Valley of Vision I found this prayer and have made it mine today. I suspect Murray would do the same.


Another week has gone and I have been preserved
in my going out,
in my coming in.

Thine has been the vigilance that has turned threatened evils aside;
thine the supplies that have nourished me;
Thine the comforts that have indulged me;
Thine the relations and friends that have delighted me;
Thine the means of grace which have edified me;
Thine the Book, which, amidst all my enjoyments, has told me that this is not my rest,
that in all successes one thing alone is needful, to love my Saviour.
Nothing can equal the number of they mercies but my imperfections and sins.
These, O God, I will neither conceal nor palliate, but confess with a broken heart.

In what condition would secret reviews of my life leave me
were it not for the assurance that with thee there is plenteous redemption,
that thou art a forgiving God,
that thou mayest be feared!

While I hope for pardon through the blood of the cross,
I pray to be clothed with humility,
to be quickened in thy way,
to be more devoted to thee,
to keep the end of my life in view,
to be cured of the folly of delay and indecision,
to know how frail I am,
to number my days and apply my heart unto wisdom.

January 23, 2008

It is easy to grow discouraged at the state of the church. As a person who invests quite a lot of time and attention to studying the church, her health and what Jesus requires of her, I often find myself lamenting her state. Writers from all backgrounds and denominations have written about the church, and I have read many of these books and publications. The standard book begins with a few chapters outlining all the ways the church has failed with the rest of the book providing the solution. If only we did this or that or the other thing, we would make the church what she was intended to be. I haven’t read too many books that give the church a pat on the back and said “good job!” Maybe for good reason. Maybe not. When I wrote The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment I was deliberate in not doing that, in not giving a long list of all the ways the church has failed. In a sense I don’t need to as her failing are evident to anyone who seeks to look for them; but I also did not wish to spread a spirit of discouragement.

Here are just a couple of examples of people who have taken on the church in recent years. Rick Warren wrote the mega-seller The Purpose Driven Church wherein he proclaimed that the church had lost sight of her purpose and had to rediscover it. Millions of pastors bought and read this book and began what Warren refers to as the Second Reformation - a Reformation of purpose. A couple of years ago I counted six or seven books in the Christian bookstore heralding “the next Reformation,” yet all of them pointed towards a different basis for this Reformation. The men and women of the Emergent community continually write indictments of the church, showing how, in their view, she has failed in the modern world and is primed to be an even greater failure in the postmodern world. A person who is fully immersed in the Emergent church sent me an email once and wrote about “denominational distinctives that strive to keep us divided” as if churches are purposely focusing on the distinctives in order to drive wedges between them and other believers. There are any number of other authors that identify problems and tell us how to fix them. Many people are proud to be believers, yet are ashamed to be part of the church - the visible body of Christ. They portray the church as being purposeless, intellectual and ancient, knowingly and joyfully trapped in the past, snickering as we watch our neighbors fall into the abyss.

Yet the church is not a failure; the church—the remnant of those who are faithful, who compose only a fraction of the wider, visible church, remain true to Christ and continue to do God’s work in the world. Jesus Himself told us that the road to salvation is narrow and only a few enter, so we should not be surprised when there are far more who turn their backs than respond with joy. We mourn their loss but trust in God’s sovereignty in saving His people. This I can guarantee: 100% of God’s elect have been (or will be!) ministered to and changed by the Word of God. Every one of them has heard the preaching of a minister of the Word or has read a Bible lovingly and obediently translated which was delivered to someone who needed it most. Why do we dwell so often and sometimes exclusively on our failures and shortcomings? Does this honor God and glorify Him for the battles that have been won and the lives He has changed through us?

Despite these victories we too often see the church as a failure. I used to get a lot of emails from a friend who has a high view of his own sin. He tends to sign his emails as “your sinful, spiteful, hell-deserving sinner of a friend” or something like that. He never hides from his own sin, and I admire that. And while it is fully true that he is a sinner and no doubt feels spite and malice and does deserve hell, this is only half the story. In his view of his sin I think he often loses sight of the fact that in God’s eyes he is now a beautiful new creation, restored to the image of God. He has been bought with precious blood and adopted into the family of the king! I continually have to remind him that he is focusing on only half of the battle. His emphasis on his sin does not allow him to see the beauty of what he has become. And I think this is how the church often sees itself - it sees the bad and loses track of all the good things that the church has done through Christ.

The church, despite sin and failings and shortcomings and imperfections of all sorts is a glorious body and one that I know Christ is proud of. He has promised that the church will prevail and we can take refuge in that promise. If we were not such a sinful mess we would not need him at all! But because we are sinful and constantly go astray, we need Him to lead and guide us as we act as His representatives on earth. I know that there is so much more we could do, and must do. I know the church is not all that God wants it to be. Yet I am confident that it brings Him glory and makes Him proud. So if you are part of this body, allow yourself a moment of gratitude and awe for what God has done in and through His body; thank God that you can be part of something so awesome, so glorious, so godly. And then put your hand to the plow and continue the work He has entrusted to us.

January 21, 2008

Today marks the end of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment blog tour. This was meant to be only a two week tour, but events conspired to keep me from visiting SharperIron on the scheduled date. We decided we would add one date to the tour so I could make that stop.

The guys at SharperIron focused on the common belief that discernment is intuitive rather than something that requires dedicated thought and practice. How does Scripture tell us to view discernment as a step of rational thought guided by the Holy Spirit, rather than a supra-rational sixth sense? After that opening question, they asked several questions that furthered application. For example, If I use my knowledge of Scripture to judge some action as evil, and this discernment seems clear, how should I view my brother who does not make the same discernment? These were surprisingly difficult questions that I struggled with for quite some time.

Read my answers here.

I am grateful for all of the bloggers who chose to participate in this tour:

January 7Evangelical Outpost
January 8Tall Skinny Kiwi
January 9A-Team
January 10Adrian Warnock
January 11Gender Blog
January 14Jollyblogger
January 15Between Two Worlds
January 16TeamPyro
January 17Michael Spencer
January 18Church Matters
January 21SharperIron
January 19, 2008

I have no memory of reading (or having read to me) C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia (though I’ve been assured that my parents did read them to me at least once). On the other hand, I remember reading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit many times. I read Tolkien for the joy of reading his stories. I love the world he created and I love the epic scope of the adventures. But for some reason Narnia has never appealed to me in the same way. Over the past months I’ve been reading the Chronicles with my children and have been experiencing them for the first time. I’ve enjoyed them and have enjoyed drawing comparisons and contrasts with The Lord of the Rings.

It may be unfair to compare the two series but really comparisons are inevitable. After all, the books were written by close friends and were written near the same time. The authors often compared notes and there are quite a few shared elements between them. After recently completing Prince Caspian, and in anticipation of the forthcoming film, I have been reading Devin Brown’s new book Inside Prince Caspian. I previously read Inside Narnia and found that it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Brown is a C.S. Lewis enthusiast (or scholar, perhaps) and uses these books to provide literary analysis of the Chronicles. He often refers to Tolkien and I found this short passage helpful as I’ve considered why I prefer Middle-earth to Narnia.

Tolkien more frequently not only gives the impression of depth but also provides actual depth. For example, if Tolkien had placed a Stone Table with letters in Middle-earth, he might very well have included a rendition of the letters themselves, a history of the language they were written in, and not only the names of the people who had originally carved them but also the names of their parents and grandparents. When we come to an open door on the backdrop of Tolkien’s stage, he will often open it for us. In contrast, as Doris Myers rightly asserts, the doors in Narnia typically “do not open unless the story requires that someone go through them.”

This observation about Lewis’s technique of suggesting more than is stated and not answering every question extends beyond historic details. Thus, as Myers points out, with Lewis there is no point in asking questions like, “Since there were no other humans, who ruled Narnia after the Pevensies returned to our world?” or “Since Caspian the First gained Narnia through conquest and unjustly destroyed Nature, under what law is Prince Caspian the rightful king?” Myers’s answer to closed doors like these is that Lewis’s stories are “sufficiently powerful” so that we do not question or perhaps even notice any lack of of more adequate explanations.

And I think this explains why I prefer Middle-earth. Middle-earth, as a world, and The Lord of the Rings as a story, are far more developed than Narnia and The Chronicles. I haven’t ever bothered to read Tolkien’s long, dense and boring histories of his world, evolutions of the language, and so on. But his attention to the smallest detail of his world is obvious through his stories. But with Lewis there are many unanswered questions and many doors that seem to lead nowhere. The world does not seem to have the internal consistency of Tolkien’s. The stories are good, but the world is not so immersive.

Yet I think the simplicity of Lewis’s world may be part of its appeal to some people, and to younger people in particular. Never are there long, dry explanations of fictitious history. Lewis tends to stay closer to the narrative without having to dedicate so much time to the back story. Also, Lewis provides interesting moral lessons and life lessons that are easier to find and more naturally read out of the story than what is found in Tolkien. These lessons are easily found and easily applicable, even to young readers.

But still I prefer Middle-earth. It has been good to read The Chronicles but even while I do so, I look forward to eventually reading through The Lord of the Rings with the family. It will be a long haul, but it is a challenge I am eager to take on.

Which of the worlds or the stories do you prefer (and why)?

January 18, 2008

Today is the second to last day of the blog tour for my new book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment. For the past two weeks I’ve been answering questions that have been asked by a variety of bloggers. Though something neither I nor Crossway had tried before, this blog tour has been fun, I think, and I’ve been pleased to receive quite a lot of positive feedback. Today the tour moves to Church Matters, the blog of 9Marks Ministries. They asked the following two questions: Tim, from your perspective as a layperson, what steps would you like to see more pastors taking to grow in discernment? And, Are there specific areas of church life and pastoring in which you find yourself wishing pastors would exercise greater discernment?

Read my answers here

Here is a list of the blog tour stops:

January 7Evangelical Outpost
January 8Tall Skinny Kiwi
January 9A-Team
January 10Adrian Warnock
January 11Gender Blog
January 14Jollyblogger
January 15Between Two Worlds
January 16TeamPyro
January 17Michael Spencer
January 18Church Matters
January 21SharperIron
January 17, 2008

We are nearing the end of The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment blog tour and today the tour takes me to Michael Spencer’s blog. I appreciated these words from Michael: “Those of you looking for an argument can move along. I’m sure Tim and I disagree on many things, but scripture tells us that it’s a good thing when brothers dwell together in unity. Our agreement on the Good News of Jesus outweighs our disagreements.” He asked questions about what happens to churches and Christians who refuse to practice discernment, about freelance discernment ministries, about a Protestant magisterial and about Tim Horton’s (along with a few other topics).

Read my answers here

Once more, here is where the tour has gone and where it will go for its last two stops:

January 7Evangelical Outpost
January 8Tall Skinny Kiwi
January 9A-Team
January 10Adrian Warnock
January 11Gender Blog
January 14Jollyblogger
January 15Between Two Worlds
January 16TeamPyro
January 17Michael Spencer
January 18Church Matters
January 21SharperIron